Q What does it mean that Pope Francis is traveling to the Holy Land so early in his papacy?
I think it’s a very good sign. He wants to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras, head of the Orthodox Church, and he will be meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew. But the fact that he has responded so early to the invitation of President [Shimon] Peres to be there is a demonstration of his deep commitment to the Catholic-Jewish relationship and to the bonds between the Christian world and the Holy Land. Francis comes a third time [after visits by John Paul II and Pope Benedict]. He has virtually confirmed that a papal visit to Israel, the Holy Land, is an integral part of papal procedures. It has now become part of the infrastructure of the papacy. And that’s very significant.
Q. What message do you hope that sends to the world?
The very visit in itself will send a message of goodwill and, I hope, a message of love. And that’s a really important message for us in the Middle East because, at the moment, we’re not behaving toward one another with love. Part of the problem is that all of us are afraid of one another. Therefore, we’re suspicious of one another. Perhaps if the message of genuine affection and brotherhood comes from the pope toward all the peoples in the Middle East, maybe we, the peoples in the Middle East, will learn to love one another better.
Q. You have met Pope Francis a half-dozen times since his election. What are your impressions?
It’s much easier with the previous two popes, whom I knew well. They spoke English fluently. Pope Francis does not speak English fluently so I have to break my teeth in my Italian in order to communicate with him. The amazing thing about him, in that regard, is a little bit like John Paul II. It’s something that’s happened to him that he’s quite amazed by as well. You actually don’t need to talk to him to communicate with him. He is such a warm person that when he shakes your hand and looks into your eyes and shakes your arm and puts his hand around you, you feel you’re genuinely a friend and you’ve been received with friendship and that strengthens your sense of friendship toward him.
Q. What can we expect from his papacy for the long haul — what’s the legacy he’ll leave?
I think what’s remarkable about Pope Francis has already been demonstrated. I don’t think it’s logically possible to explain the degree of warmth to which he has been received by the whole spectrum of society including what you might call radical secular anti-clerical elements. What it shows is the deep desire in our world to be able to have a symbol, an image of humanity, of compassion, of simplicity. And the fact that it can be at the highest level of a hierarchical structure actually stuns people. That’s very good news for the church itself because it helps give the church the image that it wants to have, not the image that others had portrayed until a year ago, and it’s good for Catholic-Jewish relations because, as everybody knows, Pope Francis is a friend of the Jews.
Q. Since your arrival in Miami, you’ve met with Archbishop Thomas Wenski and others. Do you see the same close Catholic-Jewish relationship happening at the grassroots level of the church?
America is the great success story of Nostra Aetate, the document that came out of the Second Vatican Council that changed the Catholic-Jewish relationship. The fact that things changed in Olympian heights doesn’t always mean that they’re translated into action on the ground. Church leaders like Archbishop Wenski are deeply committed and involved in the Catholic-Jewish relationship, seen by the Jewish community as friends and we need to be able to bring the example of America to the world at large.