“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.
In one sense, Benedict sought to build his own bridges. For example, he openly endorsed the stalled bid for Turkey to join the European Union, even as the traditionally secular state became increasingly religious under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim. He also called on Catholics in Europe to embrace immigrants from the Islamic world.
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.