Benedict also had a history of developing closer relations with the Jewish community, becoming the first pope to visit a synagogue in the United States and once describing the Jewish faith as “particularly close to us.”
Yet as the defender of the Catholic faith, Benedict also became known for divisive pronouncements. The most controversial was a 2006 speech in Germany, when he quoted a text attributed to the 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus that denounced the teachings of the prophet Muhammad as “evil” and “inhuman.” The move sparked protests in Muslim countries, leading to churches being burned and the images of the pope burned in effigy.
Also during Benedict’s tenure, the Vatican reversed the excommunication of Richard Nelson Williamson, a bishop who called Jews “enemies of God” and questioned the Holocaust.
In Francis’s first days, however, religious leaders say the new pope appears to be reaching out to those of other faiths, although it remains to be seen whether that will last. Speaking of Benedict, Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, said that “from a purely theological point of view, he was very strict.”
By comparison, Francis, who sent Di Segni a personal invitation to attend his induction, has “in his first few days shown a different approach. He is talking about repentance, about mercy.”
But, Di Segni added: “It is still too early to say how this pope will be. Everything I’ve heard is that he had good relations with the Jewish community in Argentina, but now he is the leader of the Catholic Church. What works as bishop may not work as pope.”
Benedict, now known as the pope emeritus, earned the ire of some Anglicans for creating “ordinariates.” These were new church structures that allowed conservative Anglicans to convert to Catholicism. They were particularly aimed at conservatives who were frustrated with their own progressive hierarchy’s move to embrace female and gay clergy.
But Bishop Gregory Venables, the Anglican bishop of Argentina, said Bergoglio was apparently skeptical of Benedict’s move. Bergoglio “called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the ordinariate was quite unnecessary and that the church needs us as Anglicans,” Venables told the Anglican Communion News Service.
‘A facilitator for peace’
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, said perhaps most telling of the new pope’s intentions with other faiths was his decision to honor St. Francis of Assisi.
“When he chose his name, he knew full well that it would ease dialogue with other religions, including Islam,” Paglia said. “When the Crusades were going on, Francis of Assisi went to Egypt to speak with the sultan. While others were using the sword, he used the word.”
Borger, the Jewish community leader in Buenos Aires, said in Bergoglio he found “a simple, humble man” who is committed to social justice. “He spoke out constantly against anti-Semitism and any other form of discrimination,” Borger said. “He will be a facilitator for peace.”
The last time Bergoglio visited the center, Borger said, he accompanied him down to the street and out through the center’s heavy steel doors. The archbishop bid a warm goodbye, he said, then began walking toward the subway.
Faiola reported from Vatican City. Julie Tate in Washington and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.