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The Promise of Pope Francis

From the moment he walked onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square last week, Pope Francis has been doing things that herald great promise not only for Catholics, but for the work of inter-religious relations in particular, and for the role of faith in the world as whole.  

Two moments in particular, stand out at examples of why this rabbi is quickly coming to see that Pope Francis could be considered a religious teacher and guide not only for Catholics, but for all people, whatever faith they follow.

In his first public appearance, Pope Francis invited the masses gathered at the Vatican – many of whom gathered not only to see the new Bishop of Rome, but to receive his blessing – to bless him before he blessed them!  Standing before those he leads, the Pope assured them that those seeking blessing, are themselves capable of conferring blessing on others, and that however elevated his status, he needed their prayers.  

Pope Francis reminded people that authentic prayer and blessing are not the purview of any one person or office holder, that we all have it within us to share these gifts.

Pope Francis reminded people that authentic prayer and blessing are not the purview of any one person or office holder, that we all have it within us to share these gifts, and that no matter how spiritually adept or religiously important one may be, we all stand in need of each others’ prayers and blessings.  

That view, extended to all those in the crowd, especially knowing that by no means were all those gathered there Catholic, promises a new era in relations between those who follow different faiths.

The New Pope invited people to experience a world in which people, no matter how deeply committed to a particular tradition, acknowledged that real spiritual gifts and power are to found among those who follow other faiths.  

He modeled a world in which religious leaders appreciated that they needed the prayers of others in order to assume their roles as leaders. That is a world in which we move from religious folks simply celebrating those things about which they already agree, and negotiating greater civility among different religions – too often the substance of what passes for inter-religious encounter -- to nurturing genuine relationships which celebrate the unique contributions that each tradition and each follower offers the others.  A new world indeed.

Any doubt about the path being marked by Pope Francis in this regard, was removed on Saturday when he met the press corps that had gathered in Rome for the previous week. 

In what would be the Pontiff’s final meeting, at least for now, with such a large and diverse group, his comments sent a clear and powerful message.  Again, one from which all people, religious or not, could learn.

“Given that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence, to each one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God,” Pope Francis said. “May God bless you.”

With a few brief sentences, the pope shattered and false and often dangerous dichotomy between fidelity to the faith one follows, and respecting the human dignity inherent in all people, no matter what their chosen faith path may be, including the path of no faith at all. 

This was about honoring human conscience and embracing the limits of any particular religious language, no matter how much we may love it.  

This was about, in my tradition at least, reclaiming the Genesis story in which the first humans had no particular religion, and attention is drawn to the fact that no matter what, all are created in the image of God.

People can debate the God part forever, but that is not the point.  The point is to draw on whatever one understands to be the source of all that is best in the world, and acknowledge that it is embodied not only by those who share your path, but also by those who do not.  Bless Pope Francis for reminding us anew of that very ancient truth.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.