[Published in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, March 12, 2021, pp. 1 and 8.]
by Abraham Skorka
March 13 marks the eighth anniversary of the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th pope of the Catholic Church. Since then he has traveled a long and winding path with many challenges along the way.
Although since 2013 I have many times offered my own perspectives about the thinking and actions of Pope Francis, today what comes into my heart and mind are only affectionate memories. I think of Buenos Aires, Rome, Jerusalem, Auschwitz, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi. I remember the many dialogues we had: the words, the silences and especially the moments when we could look at each other and be warmed by the spirituality of each other’s souls. Such are my feelings when I look back over the years.
The appeal and credibility of a genuine leader, a servant leader, resides in the sincerity and honesty of the person. Whether their words will stand the test of time depends on the integrity and truthfulness of what they say. When I came to know Jorge Bergoglio in our native Buenos Aires, I was edified by the humility, simplicity, and straightforwardness of his person and his ministry. I remember our personal encounters. We shared joys, hopes, sorrows, afflictions, and deep feelings. The Jewish sages teach that it is in such authentic friendship that one fully opens the heart to the other (Sifre Devarim, Nitzavim, 305).
It seems to me that those same virtues continue to be reflected in his words and actions in the important position he now occupies.
Our first conversation after his election as pope was on the eve of his coronation. He almost apologetically expressed regret at not being able to continue sharing those moments that we used to enjoy of heartfelt reflection and the planning of projects. Blessedly, our friendship has continued from afar.
The first time we met in the Domus Sanctae Marthae after he took up papal residence there, he allowed a famous Israeli journalist to record a message of peace for all the inhabitants of the Middle East, which had a positive impact when it was broadcast. On subsequent occasions when we can meet in person, we continue to try to do something to affirm the universal values proclaimed by the prophets. The demands of justice—as expressed by Isaiah, Amos, and others—for the needy, for defenseless widows and orphans, and for peace among the peoples, are always part of our conversations.
When the college of cardinals elected my friend as pope eight years ago, he chose the papal name Francis for himself, that transcendent figure who attained what Martin Buber might call an “I-Thou” relationship with nature and with all people. That was the spiritual essence that inspired Bergoglio during his priesthood. It has now been profoundly expressed in his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. The “I-Thou” conception of faith should be understood as a state of closeness to the Lord that by its very nature necessitates the serving of one’s fellow human beings throughout one’s life.
I also recall that he frequently used the verb “to walk” (the Hebrew root is halak) during our dialogues. He used it in the sense of a search for spiritual growth and commitment to the other, as when he described the Catholic-Jewish rapprochement after Nostra Aetate as a “journey of friendship” (26 May 2014). Likewise, the image of Abraham fulfilling God’s command to “go” (Genesis 12:1) is a source of inspiration for him. Interestingly, God’s commandment to Abraham in Genesis 17:1, “walk before Me and be blameless”, appears in the classical Aramaic translations (Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan) as: “serve me”. That is also how medieval exegetes understood it. One’s path through life must manifest the kind of faith that serves the Creator and all creation.
Anniversaries evoke memories of what was done in the past and invite planning for the future. The prophet Isaiah states that “those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not become faint” (40:31). Thus the path of my dear friend has a new beginning with the dawn of each day.