“I thank the Lord for allowing me to share this path with elder brothers,” it read. It was signed “Jorge Mario Bergoglio,” leaving off any formal title.
“In the maximum leader of the Christian world,” said Guillermo Borger, the association president, “we have an ally.”
The interfaith relationships built by Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina underscore an approach to religious diversity that observers say could differ substantially from the papacy of Benedict XVI, whose tenure was marked by a mixed record of controversial statements and misunderstandings. In contrast, during his time as cardinal, Pope Francis became largely known for tolerance and peaceful cohabitation with non-Roman Catholics.
Argentina’s sizable Muslim community has praised Francis for facilitating interfaith dialogue during the 14 years he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. The secretary general of the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic, Sumer Noufouri, said he regularly attended an annual Mass convened by Bergoglio to celebrate Argentina’s Independence Day, alongside the country’s Jewish leaders.
“He is a person who listens and who knows Islam,” said Noufouri, who described Bergoglio’s elevation to pope as “an opportunity for a fresh start in relations between Islam and the Catholic Church,” particularly at a time of growing “Islamophobia in Europe.”
Vatican insiders say Francis’s history of building bridges, along with his attempt to quickly transform the lofty office of the papacy through humanity and simplicity, may already be paying off.
Experts point to the rare decision by Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to attend Tuesday’s papal induction, becoming the first to do so since at least the Great Schism of 1054. Observers said the decision appeared to be linked to Francis’s closeness to Byzantine Catholics in Buenos Aires, who hold traditions similar to those of the Eastern Orthodox faith.
Francis would meet with leaders of Christian and non-Christian churches at the “same moment, not two different moments,” the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, stressed before that session last week.
Said John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries”: “If Francis keeps making it clear that he is not exalting himself, that he sees the papal office as less authoritarian from the top, as more collegial, we could see some huge movements in ecumenical relations.”
That would stand in contrast with the past eight years, when Benedict’s papacy saw occasionally strained relations between the Vatican and other faiths, particularly with Muslims and Jews.