A rabbi and a priest walk into an independence day celebration….
That, literally, is how one the most high-profile interfaith friendships in the world today started. More specifically, the bond that Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina cemented with the man who would become Pope Francis began as so many male friendships do: over sports.
It was in the late 1990s, that Skorka, rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer in Buenos Aires, was invited to attend the Te Deum, celebrated by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires on the anniversary of Argentina’s May Revolution. Skorka went as a representative of the Jewish community. When Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now known as Pope Francis — asked the faith leaders present about their favorite soccer teams to lighten the mood, Skorka replied honestly, “My team is River Plate” — one of the more hopeless athletic causes in Argentina.
“Their fans are called ‘chickens,’” Skorka related during an October 28 interview with the Forward while on a visit to New York. As each cleric rose to shake hands with the archbishop at the ceremony’s conclusion, Bergoglio, a San Lorenzo fan, looked straight at the rabbi when he congratulated the Catholic leader on his speech. “I guess this year,” the future pope kidded him, “we are going to eat chicken soup.”
That was the moment Skorka realized he was looking at someone special. “Behind this joke,” he recalled, “I realized that Bergoglio was saying, ‘The door is open.’ And so that was the beginning.”
More than a decade later, Skorka finds himself in the position of offering his fellow Jews a lens through which to understand the new leader of the Catholic faith. His own close-up view has continued since Bergoglio’s ascension to the Holy See last March. This spring, Skorka will even join Pope Francis on his inaugural papal trip to Israel.
“As pilgrims to Israel, we are dreaming of certain moments,” Skorka related. Among the things he and Pope Francis look forward to is “to pray together in front of the Kotel,” he said, referring to the remnant of the ancient Temple’s Western Wall, a Jewish holy site. Skorka plans also to accompany the Pope to Bethlehem, to show respect for the role of Christian history in the Holy Land.