Pope Francis’ Recent Visit to Africa

Pope Francis’ Recent Visit to Africa. Satellite image of African Continent

In the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies, we have a great interest in the recent visit of Pope Francis in a mission of peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, which took place January 31 – February 5, 2023 and marks his fifth trip to Africa.

As part of the synodal process, Pope Francis entered into dialogue with Catholics, politicians and ordinary citizens, many of whom have suffered greatly from tribal feuding, war and economic exploitation. Many people have been killed, and millions have been displaced and are grappling to meet basic needs such as food and shelter.

Pope Francis’ apostolic journey was also an ecumenical one as the Church of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields accompanied him. The three Christian leaders highlighted the plea for justice and peace for the Congolese and South Sudanese peoples and joined together with the Christian faithful for an ecumenical prayer service in Juba, South Sudan on February 4.

Pope Francis called for unity during the ecumenical prayer for peace:

“… Dear friends, those who would call themselves Christians must choose which side to take. Those who choose Christ choose peace, always; those who unleash war and violence betray the Lord and deny his Gospel. What Jesus teaches us is clear: we are to love everyone, since everyone is loved as a child of our common Father in heaven. The love of Christians is not only for those close to us, but for everyone, for in Jesus each person is our neighbour, our brother or sister – even our enemies (cf. Mt 5: 38-48). How much more true is this of those who are members of the same people, albeit belonging to different ethnic groups. ‘That you love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 15:12): that is Jesus’ commandment, and it contradicts every ‘tribal’ understanding of religion. ‘That they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21). That is Jesus’ heartfelt prayer to the Father for all of us who believe.

Let us work together, brothers and sisters, to foster this fraternal unity among ourselves as Christians, and help to bring the message of peace to society by spreading Jesus’ way of non-violence. Those who claim to be believers should have nothing more to do with a culture based on the spirit of vengeance. The Gospel must not be just a beautiful religious philosophy, but a prophecy that becomes reality in history. Let us work for peace by weaving and mending, not by cutting or tearing. Let us follow Jesus, and in following him, let us walk together on the path to peace (cf. Lk 1:79).

… Dear friends, my brothers and I have come, together, as pilgrims to be with you, the holy people of God, on your journey. Even if distance separates us physically, we always remain close to you. Let us set out each day by praying for one another, by working together as witnesses and mediators of the peace of Jesus, and by persevering in the same journey by our practical acts of charity and unity. In all things, let us love one another constantly and from the heart (cf. 1 Pet 1:22).” (“Ecumenical Prayer,” “John Garang” Mausoleum [Juba] Saturday, 4 February 2023)

May this call for justice and the good of all lead to a resolution of the conflicts that have destroyed or uprooted countless lives over the decades!

I would like to note that February 4, 2023 also commemorated the Third International Day of Human Fraternity and the presentation of the annual Zayed Award for Human Fraternity. It was the occasion for a video message that recalled the visits of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi and Iraq and the historic meeting between the Holy Father and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, during which they co-signed the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”.

This year the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity chose the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome and Mrs. Shamsa Abubakar Fedhil, secretary of the Mombasa Women of Faith Network in Kenya, as co-honorees of the 2023 award. “Now in its fourth edition, the award recognizes honorees from around the world for their contributions to building a more peaceful, and compassionate world based on the values of human fraternity.” (https://zayedaward.org/en)

Congratulations to both for their work on peacebuilding!

We invite all to peruse the text of Pope Francis’ message on this occasion.

2023 Day of Judaism and Christian Unity Week

Christian Unity Week

Christians have been joining together for an octave of ecumenical prayer (January 18-25) for 115 years. This observance seeks the fullness of unity in Jesus’ prayer:

“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:20-21, New American Bible)

This tradition of praying for peace and harmony, once referred to as the Church Unity Octave (eight days) and now called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was established in January 1908 by Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement in Graymoor, NY. Over the years, it has flourished into global observance by people of all denominations throughout the world.

The Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute’s, “Brief History of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 18-25, 2020,” provides an excellent outline of the historical development of the prayer for unity. Refer also to my 30-minute interviews “Prayer for Christian Unity in the Context of Christian Unity Week” with Monsignor John A. Radano and “Christian Ecumenism and the Society of the Atonement” with Sister Lorilei Fuchs, SA, of blessed memory.

In the 1990s, the Bishops of Italy in partnership with leaders of the Jewish community promoted a “Day of Judaism” for January 17th on the eve of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Bishops of Poland, Austria and other European countries have adopted similar annual days of Christian-Jewish reflections with variations.

A liturgical day of remembrance, the “Day of Judaism” reminds all Christians to explore the roots of Christianity in its Jewish matrix and to value the enduring significance of Judaism and its Sacred Scriptures. This reflection on the Biblical heritage that we share with the Jewish people is an ideal way to inaugurate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The theme for the 2023 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “Do good; seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17) and this year’s texts for use each day was prepared by the Minnesota Council of Churches.

“The context from which these materials were first drafted is the aftermath of the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd and the trial of the police officer responsible for his death. As the Christian communities of Minnesota sought to respond to the anguish of these events they also recognised their own historical complicity in perpetuating divisions which have contributed to racial injustice. The Church is called to be the sign and instrument of the unity God desires for the whole of His creation (cf. Lumen gentium, 1) but the division between Christians weakens the Church’s effectiveness. Christians must repent of their divisions and work together in order to be a source of reconciliation and unity in the world.” (“Texts for 2023 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,” The Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity)

The suggestions for each day of the week of prayer are available on the website of the Friars of Atonement at https://www.atonementfriars.org/2023-week-of-prayer-for-christian-unity/.

May these days of interfaith and ecumenical prayer and reflection lead us to implement just deeds that effect peaceful relations throughout our world!

Anti-Jewish Bigotry in the Classroom

On March 5, 2020 the M.A. Program in Jewish-Christian Studies sponsored a Teachers Study Day, with financial assistance from the New Jersey Commission for Holocaust and Genocide Education. The topic was “Jewish Education during the Nazi Period and Holocaust Education Now.”

The first speaker, Dr. Marion Kaplan from New York University, asked participants if they had seen an article in the New York Times of March 4th. A few raised their hands. Here is the text, a report on an elite high school in southern New Jersey by Susan Otterman: www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/nyregion/new-jersey-antisemitism-high-school.html.

For younger generations, the Nazi period may seem to be ancient history. But as Dr. Kaplan presented the ways primary and secondary education took place in Germany from 1933, the shock of a current scene in New Jersey was evident. Then, the blatant discrimination was ordered by the highest authorities in the land and resonated on every level in the schools. The small Jewish population in Germany was well integrated into the general culture, but children were segregated easily and made to feel that they did not fit.

In contrast, the education system in this state includes study of the Holocaust and related crimes of genocide. Efforts are made to alert young people to the danger of bullying and other forms of discrimination. How to explain the crude forms of bigotry that lurk under the surface among teenagers who should know better? Should their homes be blamed, or are the students simply guilty of braggadocio?

Administrators of schools must be alert to signs that a gang spirit is developing under their noses. Among all the elements of an approach to offer a solution before anyone is hurt would be the simple reflection on the Golden Rule. The website of Scarboro Interfaith Dialogue describes this principle as the universal basis for promoting human dignity. Surely teenagers can come to see that they should deal with others as they would want to be treated.

Anti-Jewish Bigotry in Stone

Anglican Lincoln Cathedral. U.K. By JThomas, CC BY-SA 2.0

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Bishops in several European countries have led the effort to remove the carvings and paintings that portray the vicious canard that Jewish people used the blood of a Christian boy to make the maṣṣah (unleavened bread) for the Passover meal. For example, the Anglican Lincoln Cathedral has a plaque repudiating the case of “Little Hugh,” dating back to 1255.

Recently another statue in Wittenberg, Germany, the Judensau depicting Jewish people suckling a sow, has been in the news.

The laudable effort to contrast this insulting image with an information board message and monument commemorating the six million Jewish victims of the Nazis seems inadequate. Why? Because bigots could ignore the educational message and focus on the fact that a Christian church fostered and even now seems to endorse the idea of ridiculing the Jews.

It would be better to place this and other manifestations of such hatred in a place where a direct explanation by docents can deal with the enduring challenge to human decency. I hope that this can be accomplished by local leaders!

Prayer for Christian Unity

For more than a century Christians have fostered a week of prayer (January 18-25) for the peace and harmony that responds in an ever deepening way to the prayer of Jesus. “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:20-21, New American Bible).

This year the texts for use each day were prepared by Christians of Malta. Appropriately they draw upon the experience of St. Paul whose voyage from Caesarea to Rome was interrupted by shipwreck near Malta. Fittingly, the document quotes the statement, “The natives showed us extraordinary hospitality” (Acts 28:2, New American Bible). The various dimensions of hospitality are explored during the meditations and prayers for each day.

The suggestions for each day of the week of prayer are available on the website of the Friars of Atonement at www.atonementfriars.org/2020-week-of-prayer-for-christian-unity/.

Many years ago, in collaboration with leaders of the Jewish community, the Bishops of Italy promoted a “Day of Judaism” for January 17th each year, with a theme rooted in the Sacred Scriptures. This has been followed, with variations by the Bishops of Poland, Austria and other European countries. Over the decades there has been an enriching exchange among scholars of the Jewish community with Christians. The “Day of Judaism” complements these important initiatives with educational themes that are intended to reach parishioners in the Catholic churches of these nations. May both types of experience be multiplied!  In the meantime Christians are challenged to deepen and broaden their search to explore the roots of Christianity in its Jewish matrix.

The Blight of Racism

As we study the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and its Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate), we grapple with the anti-Jewish bigotry that has marred tragically the relationship of Jews and Christians over the centuries. The Council reminds us that education of the public requires our diligence generation after generation.

Originally, this document focused on Catholic-Jewish relations but was expanded to include a reflection on all major religions. My predecessor, Msgr. Oesterreicher, found this development to be very positive:

The Declaration [on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council (10/28/65) does not in the least indulge in a blind optimism that would bypass problems; it is rather the sign of a great hope…It has rightly been said that the Council is the end of the Counter-Reformation. It may be equally true to say that the Declaration marks the end of the Reformation. More exactly: the main concern of the Reformation is no longer our concern. Today, a devout Christian is no longer worried by Luther’s question: How do I get a gracious God? The question that troubles believers of our time is rather: How does God work the salvation of all creatures?

This throws new light on the reason for linking the Declaration on the Jews with the Church’s attitude on the religions of humankind. The whole Declaration makes it clear that all singularity exists for the sake of universality, all separation for the sake of commonality. Israel’s election, too, is directed toward the all-embracing kingdom of grace. Thus, the Declaration on the Jews has taken on a dimension far surpassing its original importance. It proved its value by becoming the nucleus around which old-new insights and expressions could gather. 

Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher, The New Encounter Between Christians and Jews (New York: Philosophical Library, 1986), p. 227.

The final section of Nostra aetate widens the call of the Church to her faithful in order to eradicate all forms of discrimination, let alone persecution, because of the inherent dignity of each person and the rights that flow from our creaturehood, in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-28):

5. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men,(14) so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.

In 1997 the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a fine statement on the problem of racism in contemporary society, The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society. See the entire document here.

In the context of tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri and other places in this country, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter, calling people to address racism in our hearts and communities. This message of 2018 should be consulted again in the autumn of 2019. The text and many other resources can be on the Catholic Bishops’ Combating Racism page.

In recent years we have witnessed or learned about courageous actions of groups and individuals of many communities to stand with those suffering from bigotry. We salute the efforts of both Jewish and Christian groups to bear witness to the inconsistencies and acts of injustice within our society. We are to examine our conscience concerning the “sin of omission, when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered” (Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, p. 4). These examples should inspire many who see the plethora of challenges not to be discouraged but to stimulate a response to the needs of those who cannot speak for themselves.

Week of Christian Unity Prayer Service

Ecumenical leaders of the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark organized a prayer service for January 20, 2019 at the Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Roseland, NJ. The threat of bad weather caused the event to be postponed until February 3rd.

The 2019 theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, traditionally held from January 18-25 each year, was chosen by the Christians of Indonesia. They focused on the text of Deuteronomy 16:1-20. “Justice and only justice you shall pursue” (16:20) is a challenge that resonates throughout Jewish and Christian communities of faith worldwide. Originally this text applied to judges in Israel but can relate to all dimensions of leadership in service of humanity.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, presided over the service with pastors of several congregations in the sanctuary with him. He introduced the service with a call to prayer. “As we pray together, we are reminded that our calling as members of the body of Christ is to pursue and embody justice. Our unity in Christ empowers us to take part in the wider struggle for justice and to promote the dignity of life.”

In his homily Cardinal Tobin drew upon the Gospel of Luke 4:14-21 with its quotation from Isaiah 61:1-2 as the basis for a challenge to Christians today. Referring to the Superbowl and its selection of heroes in the game, he drew attention to the 76th anniversary of the sinking of the USS troop ship Dorchester on February 3, 1943.  There was another kind of heroism in the witness of the four chaplains, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, who gave their life-jackets to young sailors and perished, their arms linked in prayer.

You can read “No Greater Glory: The Four Chaplains and the Sinking of the USAT Dorchester” by Command Sergeant Major James H. Clifford, USA-Ret. to learn more about John P. Washington, Alexander D. Goode, George L. Fox and Clarke V. Poling and their brave sacrifice. Seton Hall University remembers its graduate Father John P. Washington, whose memory is recalled each year in St. Stephen’s Church in Kearny, NJ. (See https://ststephenkearny.com/father-washington-1).

The service on February 3rd included the commitment of the many participants to bring the call to pursue justice into their daily lives in the coming year. Our prayer is that this would be expanded so that the search for Christian unity will be put into action by deeds of the justice which works for peace in the world.

The Church and Interfaith Relations

Pope Francis and the Roman Curia on December 21, 2017. 
Photo: Vatican website, Christmas address to the Roman Curia.

Pope Francis addressed the Roman Curia with his Christmas message on December 21, 2017. He reflected on the Curia in its relationship with the nations, “with the Particular Churches (i.e. dioceses), with the Oriental Churches with ecumenical dialogue, with Judaism, with Islam and other religions – in other words, with the outside world.

Near the end of the address, the pope remarked:

The relationship of the Roman Curia to other religions is based on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the need for dialogue. “For the only alternative to the civility of encounter is the incivility of conflict”.[26] Dialogue is grounded in three fundamental lines of approach: “The duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others, the courage to accept differences, and sincerity of intentions. The duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others, because true dialogue cannot be built on ambiguity or a willingness to sacrifice some good for the sake of pleasing others. The courage to accept differences, because those who are different, either culturally or religiously, should not be seen or treated as enemies, but rather welcomed as fellow-travellers, in the genuine conviction that the good of each resides in the good of all. Sincerity of intentions, because dialogue, as an authentic expression of our humanity, is not a strategy for achieving specific goals, but rather a path to truth, one that deserves to be undertaken patiently, in order to transform competition into cooperation”.[27]

My meetings with religious leaders during the various Apostolic Visits and here in the Vatican, are a concrete proof of this.

In this passage Pope Francis refers to his Address to Participants at the International Peace Conference held at the Al-Azhar Conference Centre in Cairo, Egypt on April 28, 2017. Readers will be interested in this important text.

Wishing all who celebrate a very blessed and joyous Christmas!

[26] Address to Participants at the International Peace Conference, Al-Azhar Conference Centre, Cairo, 28 April 2017.

Multi-Religious Gathering with Pope Francis

Deep in the rock of lower Manhattan a Memorial and Museum has two levels beneath the street level. Along with the flow of water into deep nearby pools, this edifice commemorates the vicious attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Pope Francis addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the morning of September 25, 2015 and then came to a different experience of many nations; these were religious communities living in New York City and the surrounding area. They bore witness by their presence to the hope of building a spiritual edifice to strengthen the commitment of all to a vision of harmony built on mutual understanding that, in their diversity, they may contribute to the life of justice that lays the foundation for true peace in this city.

For the Catholic Church this commitment was expressed profoundly in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration of the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), which was promulgated on October 28, 1965. The anniversary was commemorated as background to this ceremony.

The Pope ended his “Prayer for Remembrance” that God

“Comfort and console us,
Strengthen us in hope,
And give us the wisdom and courage
To work tirelessly for a world
Where true peace and love reign
Among nations and in the hearts of all.”

After five religious leaders read a message of peace from traditions of East and West, the Jewish prayer in memory of the deceased was chanted. Pope Francis offered a reflection that can be read on Zenit  at http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/pope-s-address-at-ground-zero.

To symbolize hope for the future, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”   [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fH2FekyDKdw[/youtube]May this experience become a foundation for the flow of peace to reach far beyond the five boroughs of New York City!

Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy: A Reflection from the Perspective of Dialogue


Drawing on Leviticus 25, the universal Church initiated the jubilee year in 1300. The pattern developed to celebrate a spiritual releasing from debts and the slavery of sin every 25 years, with special jubilees relating to the major anniversaries of the Death of Jesus in 1933 and 1983-84. Pope Francis has declared that an extraordinary jubilee of mercy will be celebrated from December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016, the Feast of Christ the King. The Second Vatican Council was closed by Blessed Paul VI on December 8, 1965, so Pope Francis looks back in gratitude and forward to the ways in which the Church should apply the balm of mercy to a needy world.

The bull announcing the Year of Mercy on April 11, 2015 offers a rich reflection on the divine attribute of ḥesed (lovingkindness, mercy) in the revelation of the ineffable Divine Name to Moses (Ex 34:6-7; see 3:14). “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) distills these attributes into one (see #8).

The reflection on God’s patience and mercy quotes Psalms 103:3-4; 146:7-9; 147:3, 6 to show “the grandeur of his merciful action” (#6). The litany Psalm 136 with its refrain “For his ḥesed endures forever” is important in the Jewish liturgy and was prayed by Jesus and the disciples after the Last Supper (#7).

The extensive reflection on the public ministry of Jesus avoids any contrast between “Law and Gospel” (#8-9); rather, the continuity of God’s plan to bring forgiveness and peace to the world is implicit throughout (see #17 with quotations from Micah 7:18-19 and Isaiah 58:6-11).

With the quotation of Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13, Jesus offered “a liberating vision of mercy as a source of new life; Jesus was rejected by the Pharisees and the other teachers of the Law. In an attempt to remain faithful to the Law, they merely placed burdens on the shoulders of others and undermined the Father’s mercy” (#20). This document is not the place for a lengthy discussion of how Pharisees, especially in the House of Hillel, found ways to alleviate burdens brought by changing circumstances. However, phrases like “the Pharisees” might read “some Pharisees.” The paragraph ends: “The appeal to a faithful observance of the Law must not prevent attention from being given to matters that touch upon the dignity of the person.”

Appealing to Hosea’s dictum, “’I desire ḥesed and not sacrifice…’ Jesus affirms that, from that time onward, the rule of life for his disciples must place mercy at the center, as Jesus himself demonstrated by sharing meals with sinners…This is truly challenging to his hearers, who would draw the line at a formal respect for the Law. Jesus, on the other hand, goes beyond the Law; the company he keeps with those the Law considers sinners make us realize the depth of his mercy” (#20).

Coming to the apostle Paul, who pursued the justice of the Law with zeal (see Phil 3:6), Pope Francis states that “his conversion to Christ led him to turn that vision upside down…” The Greek term translated as “justice” would be rendered better as “righteousness,” the divine attribute that is in a creative tension with mercy as people strive to imitate God in their lives. Hosea is quoted at length (11:5-9) to “help us see the way in which mercy surpasses justice.” The next part of #21 gives the assurance that “God does not deny justice. He rather envelopes and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.” For Christians, “God’s justice is his mercy given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.“ The reader must recall that this document is addressed primarily to Catholics, and here touches on themes about which, over the centuries, many saints and scholars have pondered at great length!

In generosity of spirit, the bull notes: “There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the Church…Israel was the first to receive this revelation (of God’s mercy) which continues in history as the source of an inexhaustible richness meant to be shared with all mankind.” Muslims “too believe that no one can place a limit on divine mercy because its doors are always open” (#23). This section ends with an appeal:

I trust that this Jubilee year celebrating the mercy of God will foster an encounter with these religions and with other noble religious traditions; may it open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.

May people in many parts of the world take up this challenge for encounters and discussions that will bring a deeper understanding of the call to temper the search for justice with the blessing of mercy.