I have been more than pleasantly surprised by the wide-ranging opinions and beliefs of the new leader of the Catholic church, Pope Francis I. Beyond being more liberal than his predecessors, Francis is clearly adept at producing sound-bites that travel far and wide along international media channels for maximum effect. There is no doubt that he is exactly what the Church needed at this time, after being in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons of late. Knowing as I do — and as the world does now — that the majority of Jews are not religiously inclined, I can only imagine the powerfully positive affects such a leader would have on Judaism.
Religion does not need to be cool, but it does need to speak to the hopes and fears of the people living in the world today who would count themselves as its members. For a generation of Jews in which every one of us is a Jew-by-choice, to the extent that there is no longer tremendous social pressure to remain Jewish, we must be creative in how we envision making and sustaining our communities. Pope Francis gave us a guideline that applies equally to all humans, when he said:
“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.”
Rather than turning away those who would join us in community, let us strive to be as inclusive as humanly possible. Yes, insoluble differences will still exist, and for that reason it is a blessing that there is freedom of religion in North America, so that we can form communities with those who share our values without fear of violence (for the most part). However, if we take that as our excuse to no longer be in dialogue with other communities, then we have done everyone a disservice. As the pope makes clear, listening to those we already agree with is no great challenge — it is remaining in the room when your interlocutor is expressing ideas that seem foreign and unusual that the challenge arises.
While the pope does not speak for Jews, he does have a billion-strong audience, and has been as inspiring a model of an open-minded religious leader that I can remember in my lifetime. Let his term as pope thus far be a reminder that we can break the trend in which leaders keep to tradition, even when they believe that certain reforms express the true nature of the institution that they head.