The shift in tone that Pope Francis is bringing to the Catholic Church has serious repercussions for people who follow that religion – but also those of other faith systems. As the most prominent religious figure in the world, the actions, ideas, and approach of the pontiff (literally, “bridge builder”) deserve attention, including among Jews. In fact, I think even our most outstanding rabbis could learn from Pope Francis.
That’s no criticism of the gedolim (leading rabbis of the current generation). Instead, it’s a recognition that Jewish leaders need not shy away from the moral and intellectual contributions of great men of other faiths. As the Jewish collection of wisdom Pirkei Avot teaches, “Who is wise? One who learns from every man.” If we’re supposed to learn from everyone, we ought to listen carefully to one of the moral exemplars of our century.
Nothing mentioned below should be interpreted as criticizing any rabbi – nor supporting the violation of unambiguous Jewish laws. Instead, I’m praising values and behaviors that Pope Francis models – at least some of which can be a lesson to every present and future rabbi, whether a local synagogue rabbi or one of our generation’s leading rabbinical figures.
Here are some qualities shown by Pope Francis that are worthy of consideration:
1. He is accessible. Many Catholics have praised the “common touch” of the current pontiff, particularly in contrast to the more aloof popes of the past. In his desire to communicate with all kinds of people, he has become conversant in 10 languages. This pope uses Twitter. Also, he regularly grants interviews to the press, and speaks openly about important moral and contemporary matters in public settings. In fact, his followers have dubbed him “the people’s pope.”
2. He is humble. Upon his election, he eschewed the tradition of sitting on the Papal Throne – and stood instead. A Jewish leader who visited him said, “If everyone sat in chairs with [arms], he would sit in the one without.” He lives modestly in a guesthouse rather than in the lavish papal apartments. He even drives himself around Rome in a 30-year-old used Renault. Previous pontiffs rode as passengers in the “Popemobile,” a Mercedes costing more that a half-million dollars in which the pope would sit on a chair made from white leather with gold trim.
3. He is traditional. Pope Francis does not surrender to calls for assimilating recent social values that are foreign to Catholicism. Thus, he does not approve of ordaining women priests, abandoning clerical celibacy, or endorsing abortion and gay marriage. On the other hand, he has been willing to listen with respect and kindness to people advocating all kinds of new ideas. He marginalizes no one.
4. He is merciful. Soon after ascending to the papacy, Francis washed and kissed the feet of several juvenile offenders. He goes out of his way to embrace people who are usually demeaned by the wider society, especially the poor. In fact, alleviating poverty seems to be the centerpiece of his papacy.
5. He is respectful. Under Pope Francis, Catholic clergy no longer speak of “living in sin,” a phrase that had been an unnecessary slap in the face to Catholics whose family arrangements do not involve church-approved marriages. He has not changed church policy on unmarried couples cohabitating, but he sees no need to insult them, either. The recently convened Synod on the Family just released a draft document that declared that gay people had “gifts and qualities to offer,” though they maintained the church’s policies on the nature of proper bedroom and family life.
To be clear: I am not envious of Catholicism and I don’t wish Judaism would echo that religion’s ideology and practices. Rather, I’m describing the extraordinary leadership of a special person who has inspired hundreds of millions.
Since the Talmud defines wisdom as learning from everyone, surely Jews should pay attention to a man who in just 19 months has become perhaps the most influential religious paragon in the world since the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1994.