Pope Francis as Interreligious Leader

Last November three Argentine friends of Pope Francis—a rabbi, a Muslim leader and a Catholic priest—traveled from Buenos Aires to the Vatican to discuss with him a project to promote interreligious dialogue throughout the Americas, north and south.

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The three—Rabbi Daniel Goldman, the Islamic Center director Omar Abboud and the Rev. Guillermo Marco (the pope’s former press officer)—had worked closely with the pope in the field of interreligious dialogue since 2001, when the three established the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in the Argentine metropolis. They did so at one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history, as political leadership failed, the economy collapsed and the state, once one of the world’s richest, fell into default.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, then an archbishop, gave his full support. He agreed with them that it is vitally important, indeed necessary, for religious leaders from the different faith communities to work together for peace and social harmony.

That need for interreligious dialogue became clear to everyone with the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, which changed the history of the world. That attack also brought Cardinal Bergoglio onto the radar screen as papabile. Because of the attack, Cardinal Egan of New York, who had been serving as chief rapporteur at a meeting of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican, had to return to his archdiocese, and Cardinal Bergoglio replaced him in this role at the synod. He did the task so well that many cardinals then identified him as a possible successor to John Paul II.

When he was elected pope nearly 12 years later, Francis continued his commitment to interreligious dialogue. This led him to invite another rabbi, Abraham Skorka, and the Muslim leader Omar Abboud to accompany him on his visit to the Holy Land in 2014. In Jerusalem, at the Western Wall of the last Temple, the three embraced each other in a powerful testimony to the entire Middle East, and also to the rest of the world, that Jews, Christians and Muslims can live together in peace and friendship. On that visit too, Francis invited the presidents of Israel and Palestine, together with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to join him in the Vatican in a prayer service for peace. That historic event took place on June 8.

Since becoming pope, Francis has kept up his friendship with the three founders of the I.D.I., and in February 2014 he received them in the Vatican together with 42 other Argentinians from the three religious communities. They visited him at the end of their interreligious pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where they had gone to promote a message of peace and harmony and to remind Israelis and Palestinians alike that Jews, Christians and Muslims can live together in peace and harmony, as happens today in Argentina. It was the clearest evidence that the institute was still very much alive after 15 years and had become known internationally.

Then, some months ago, the Organization of American States contacted I.D.I. and invited it to be the promoter of a continental project called America in Dialogue. It proposed that the project be based on the spirit of the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” which offers a vision for the care of and responsibility for planet Earth, a concern shared by all religious traditions.

The three I.D.I. founders explained the project to Pope Francis over lunch in Santa Marta and obtained his wholehearted support. Some days later, the secretary general of the O.A.S., Luis Almagro, visited the pope and likewise received backing for this initiative.

At I.D.I.’s request, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue will host a day of reflection in the Vatican later this year to deepen the proposals and insights of the encyclical. It aims to bring together the secretaries for religious affairs in governments and representatives of the different religious communities from every country on the American continent.

Ever an advocate of the culture of dialogue, Francis is convinced that America, north and south, can make an important contribution to the resolution of many of the world’s problems through an interreligious dialogue that involves not just words, but also actions. For this reason he is supporting the O.A.S. proposal.

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