Emailing With the Pope

What Is so Beguiling and Intriguing About Francis?

Superstar: Pope Francis is breaking through.
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Superstar: Pope Francis is breaking through.

By Leonard Fein

Published October 26, 2013, issue of November 01, 2013.
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Given the explosion of interest — and research — into neurochemistry, we may before too long end up with an entirely mechanistic theory of being. If a lie detector, why not a love detector? Professions of love will be trumped by chemical analysis; proof is not in the sonnets or the roses but in the frontal lobe. Words are fickle; chemistry is constant.

But if that is so, how shall we perceive those rare individuals who seem to grab hold of history and twist it into shapes of their own choosing? How account for, say, a Napoleon, a Muhammad, a malignant Stalin, a demonic Hitler, a Shakespeare or a Mandela? How account for Pope John XXIII or the emerging giant, Pope Francis?

It is Francis who intrigues and even beguiles me these days. Yes, I know of his controversial record when he was a prelate in Buenos Aires, a record that according to some accounts goes well beyond doctrinal rigidity, a record that draws particular attention to his silence even as many thousands of leftists and intellectuals were being “disappeared” by the junta. True, most were silent, and more than a few actively complicit. But there were those who spoke up. Francis, then still Bergoglio, was not among them.

A very different example of devotion to justice, of bearing significant witness, was provided over a period of 25 years by Rabbi Marshall Mayer, who regularly joined The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association of Argentine mothers whose children were “disappeared” during the Dirty War of the military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983. They organized while trying to learn what had happened to their children, and began to march in 1977 at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, in public defiance of the government. (I was honored to be Mayer’s guest in Buenos Aires in 1987 for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, the academic, cultural, and religious center of the Conservative Jewish movement in Argentina and Latin America. It has trained and ordained many dozens of rabbis, including women, who work throughout Latin America and the United States.)

Back to Francis: It is likely that the controversy over his pre-papal years will never be resolved. The evidence, such as it is — much was destroyed — allows no solid conclusion.

But the accumulating evidence of his papacy (including his Twitter account) has rendered the pre-Papal record irrelevant. His views and his actions as Pope are boldly on view, and his insistence on the social justice mission of the Church is more than refreshing. It is – or may yet prove to be – a harbinger of a new way of understanding Catholicism, a new way of living a Catholic life.

Much of what Francis has had to say about gays, about heaven, about the preoccupations of the Church, has been widely reported. Less so a fascinating interchange between the Pope and Menachem Rosensaft. Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, and a past president of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse Universities. And he thought to send Francis a sermon he delivered recently, which raised the eternally vexing question of God’s relationship to evil. How can one believe?

And here is Rosensaft’s response: “If God was at Treblinka, I want to believe that He was within Janusz Korczak as he accompanied his children to their death. I feel certain that the mystical divine spark that characterizes Jewish faith, the Shekhina, [commonly, the feminine manifestation of God] was within my mother as she and the other women in her group rescued 149 Jewish children from almost certain death at Bergen-Belsen. Perhaps God was also within every Jewish parent who comforted a child on the way to a gas chamber, and within every Jew who told a story or a joke or sang a melody in a death camp barrack to alleviate another Jew’s agony. Perhaps it was the Shekhina that enabled young Jews like Jeanie’s father to take up arms against the Germans in ghettos and forests. Perhaps God was within the Ukrainian farmer who hid Jeanie’s mother and grandparents, and within all the other non-Jews who defied the forces of evil by saving Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

“And so it is, as I remember my parents on their Yahrzeit, that I have come to the conclusion that perhaps God did not hide His face from them after all during the years of the Shoah. Perhaps it was a divine spirit within them that enabled them to survive with their humanity intact. And perhaps it is to that God that we should be addressing our prayers during these Days of Awe and throughout the year.”

And Francis replied via email: “When you, with humility, are telling us where God was in that moment, I felt within me that you had transcended all possible explanations and that, after a long pilgrimage — sometimes sad, tedious or dull — you came to discover a certain logic and it is from there that you were speaking to us; the logic of First Kings 19:12. [‘And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, the sound of a soft breath.’ — or, more commonly, ‘a still small voice.’]”

The email from Francis concludes: “Thank you from my heart. And, please, do not forget to pray for me. May the Lord bless you.”

Am I wrong to be intrigued, beguiled?

Contact Leonard Fein at

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