In their native Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio engaged in years of dialogue. In 2010 they published a book based on their conversations and deep friendship, On Heaven and Earth: On Faith, Family, and the Church in the 21st Century.
In Caldwell on Oct. 31, Skorka touched on the complex issues in that book — but focused mainly on anecdotes illustrating the humanity of his old friend. “A very humble, very direct person” is how he referred to Bergoglio, who the world now knows as Pope Francis.
The rabbi, sharing a platform at Congregation Agudath Israel with a fellow rabbi and two priests, offered the audience a picture of an interfaith connection that ranges from issues of life and death to teasing and ongoing mutual support.
The event drew an audience of around 350 from the synagogue and the broader community. It was held in collaboration with Notre Dame Roman Catholic Church in North Caldwell, and sponsored by the Conservative synagogue’s Toby Shapiro Library Fund.
Sharing the platform with Skorka was Father Anthony Ciorra, assistant vice president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., as well as Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Alan Silverstein and Notre Dame’s Father Anthony Randazzo, the cochairs of the West Essex Ministerial Association.
The 63-year-old Skorka, who also has a doctorate in chemistry, is rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, affiliated with the Conservative movement, and rabbi of the Jewish community Benei Tikva.
Skorka recalled his recent stay at the Vatican, where he found himself seated at meals at his friend’s right hand all the way through the four-day visit. “And this is a very important detail,” he added: “While even priests he invites to eat with him have to pay, he told me, ‘Don’t pay; everything has been arranged.’”
All his food requirements were met. “He told me, ‘Don’t make problems — I will make kosher meals for you,’” Skorka recalled. “And then he said he wants to be recognized as a mashgiach [kosher supervisor]. I told him, ‘Now you begin to be a good Jew!’”
The day before, Sacred Heart had bestowed an honorary doctorate on Skorka.
According to Ciorra, though the rabbi had come with a prepared text — which will be published on the university’s website — he chose instead to speak spontaneously. “In academic institutions we talk a lot about dialogue, the purpose of dialogue, the nature of dialogue, and on, and on. He demonstrated what dialogue can actually be.”
Skorka told NJ Jewish News after his talk that he always prepares a text but seldom uses it. “I prefer to speak from the heart,” he said. “And when I hear the response from the audience, I know I have their attention.”
That response included waves of laughter as he described his relationship with Pope Francis, and illustrated it with the most human examples — including how, after the Pope’s election and a long silence that followed, they talked on the phone and agreed to communicate via e-mail.
During the Q&A session, Silverstein asked Skorka, “What are the qualities of an effective religious leader?”
Skorka replied, “Honesty — saying what is in your heart, not what is convenient for you; to really believe in God, not just to be a politician.” That obliges one to study, he continued, “to examine why you belong to your religion, and then to make its traditions a fresh, existential experience.”
“Each student you teach or member of your congregation has antennae through which they feel if you are speaking the truth,” said Skorka. “To be a leader in general, but especially to be a spiritual leader, means to transmit the truth.”
Modest about his English, Skorka said he might have hesitated to speak to American audiences. “But I learned a lot from Bergoglio on this point. He said, ‘Go ahead, just tell them about the spirit. You will be in a transcendent dimension of human experience.’”
Agudath Israel member Philip Kruger of Montville came away smiling, as so many did, but he welcomed the fact that for all his geniality, Skorka was open about difficult issues, too — for example, the controversy surrounding the elevation to sainthood of Pope Pius XII, whose reign during World War II has been criticized by a number of Jewish organizations.
“I was impressed by the fact that he started with the tough stuff,” Kruger said. “He said the Pope has promised to look into it, and that he does what he says.”