The immigrant neighborhood—and interfaith friendships—that made Pope Francis
One day you are comrades in arms, chums, colleagues palling around—and the next, your friend has become the pastor of the oldest and largest Christian church on earth.
“It is very difficult to say, ‘I’m a friend of the pope,’” says Omar Abboud, one of the most prominent Muslim leaders in Argentina, “because the pope is a mythic figure. Think about who he really is: He is the heir to the Petrine ministry, the representative of God on earth, the heir to St. Peter, chosen by Jesus of Nazareth… This friendship was cultivated at one point with a human being, and it continues as a friendship, but its dimensions have fundamentally changed because of who he has become.”
And yet Pope Francis, uniquely among modern popes, holds tight to his personal, non-Vatican friends, who form what may be the most discreet, protective club on earth: a small group of loosely affiliated Argentine men who became friends of Buenos Aires’ Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, later Cardinal Bergoglio, and who, nine years after he became Pope Francis, in private still call him Jorge. In public, they measure every word.
“It is very difficult to say, ‘I’m a friend of the pope,’” says Omar Abboud, one of the most prominent Muslim leaders in Argentina, “because the pope is a mythic figure.”
Mr. Abboud, 56, in February had just returned to Buenos Aires from a trip to Rome, where among other things he and the pope discussed the media storm that followed Francis’comments about pet owners. He finds himself in an unusual situation.
“As a devout Muslim, as a faithful Muslim, I see a Christian like Bergoglio as the spiritual leader of the modern world,” he told America. “Beyond what each of us personally believes, he represents the central values of the Abrahamic religions.”
Interreligious dialogue has symbolized each of Francis’ ecclesial reigns, starting from his days as a young bishop. It has been a thread throughout his life, which began in the flourishing, working-class, Buenos Aires neighborhood of Flores, with its whitewashed rowhouses and tidily swept patios, which remain largely unchanged even today.
Francis is the first non-European to ascend to the papacy since the 700s—and the first who is a product of the New World. As one of the most famous Argentines on earth, Francis looms as large in the country’s life as Argentina, it seems, and his roots there, loom in his.
He maintains regular, informal contact with a coterie of close friends outside the Roman curia who share his tastes in music (Astor Piazzolla tangos), provide intimate family updates and occasionally bring him delicacies from Buenos Aires. He unvaryingly makes time for them during their visits to Rome.
In 2014, when he embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Francis made two old friends, Mr. Abboud and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the former rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, the first Jewish and Muslim members of a papal delegation in history.
Pope Francis maintains regular contact with close friends outside the curia who share his tastes in music (Astor Piazzolla tangos), provide intimate family updates and occasionally bring him delicacies from Buenos Aires.
His full-chested embrace of Rabbi Skorka and Mr. Abboud in front of Jerusalem’s Western Wall became the emblematic image of his young papacy and a defining moment for any modern papacy.
The reason Francis made the unconventional choice to elevate two unknowns to this status rather than visit Jerusalem’s holy sites with local religious leaders is connected to trust and authenticity, they say.
“He knows my heart and I know his,” Rabbi Skorka says. “We do not have secrets. In those moments, during the trip, and the embrace in front of the Wall, there was no protocol involved.
“His aim was to signal to humanity that love exists between people of different religions, different creeds—a profound love, not some hug between politicians who want to show that they are in accord.”
Francis, Rabbi Skorka says, wanted to make plain that “not only are we in harmony, but there exists between us love and friendship that are real and absolute.”
Pope Francis initiated his friendship with Rabbi Skorka over 30 years ago, joking about the rivalry between their favorite soccer teams, San Lorenzo and River Plate. “I think he was looking for a Jewish partner for his ecumenical path,” Rabbi Skorka, who is a professor at the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, remembers. He last saw the pope in January, at the Vatican.
“He knows my heart and I know his,” Rabbi Skorka says. “We do not have secrets. In those moments, during the trip, and the embrace in front of the Wall, there was no protocol involved.”
The two would eventually co-author a global bestseller together,On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century, and cohost 30 televised public discussions on questions of faith.
“He knows that like anyone else I can make mistakes,” Rabbi Skorka says of the man he still calls Jorge, “but he knows I will never betray him. My friendship with him is total and sincere, as is his friendship with me.”
Mr. Abboud, whose Arabico-Argentine Press just published two massive tomes on the history of 14 centuries of relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews, says that by including a Jew and a Muslim in a Vatican delegation Francis sought to bear witness to genuine interreligious fraternity.
“At that moment, ahead of his encounter with people much more important than Rabbi Skorka or me, I think he wanted to bring people who he knew really believed in dialogue,” he said.
“Dialogue is like a second religion, or a second pilgrimage, in which you have to make yourself permeable to the spirit and the nature of the other. He could have brought more representative leaders, but he didn’t really know them. He trusted Rabbi Skorka and me to bear witness.
“That’s the reason he embraced us in front of the Wall.”
The portrait of Pope Francis that emerges from conversations with his friends is that of a man as resolutely down-to-earth, dependably Argentinian and as aspirational as the immigrant neighborhood in which he spent his formative years. There, playing in the streets with children of other expatriates—Jews, Muslims, other Catholics, almost all first-generation Argentinians—the adolescent Jorge wrote a young neighborhood girl a love letter before finding his priestly vocation at age 17.
The portrait of Pope Francis that emerges from conversations with his friends is that of a man as resolutely down-to-earth, dependably Argentinian as the immigrant neighborhood in which he spent his formative years.
Unlike any other modern pope, Francis’ inner world was forged by a mobile society of multi-ethnic diversity. “He was brought up in Flores, where he saw Jewish women who said they spoke directly to God [in prayer],” Alberto Zimerman, 73, a professor of management and a Jewish Argentine lay leader who has known the pope for decades, told America. In 2019 he co-wrote a biography of the pope.
When Jorge Bergoglio ascended to the Throne of St. Peter in 2013, El País, the Spanish daily, headlined him “the pope of the barrio.” The barrio of his childhood, Flores, is an iconic Buenos Aires neighborhood, representing Argentina’s better days—an era of integrity, neighborliness and an immigrant work ethic that built the country in the first half of the 20th century.
Francis was born 25 years after Argentina celebrated its first centenary, in years of prosperity and munificence unimaginable today, with thriving economic, social, intellectual and administrative sectors that built on the mass migration of Europeans.
It was, at the time, the world’s breadbasket. Parisians complimented one another for being “riche comme un argentin!” (“As rich as an Argentine!”) Jorge Bergoglio’s parents arrived amid a massive wave of European immigration that culminated with Italians, like the Bergoglios, numbering almost half of Argentina’s population of 13.3 million in 1936.
The first person to translate a full-text version of the Quran into Spanish was Ahmed Abboud, Omar Abboud’s grandfather, an immigrant from Beirut, and like the Bergoglios, a resident of Flores.
“This,” Mr. Abboud says, “is the reason advancing interreligious dialogue came so naturally to him.”
It would have been the conventional choice for Francis to invite local religious leadership to join him in Jerusalem, the great city of the three monotheistic faiths.
Mr. Abboud believes that “it might have been better for him to take public figures with him, the Great Rabbi of Israel, politically it would have made a statement, but Bergoglio never turns away from significance. He is present. He preferred to take people who also believe in this dialogue.”