Our rabbinates give us the opportunity to be in places we’d never imagined. Though the quiet, unheralded encounters and relationships sustain me the most, I’ll hold this one particularly close to my heart.
We live our respective faiths most deeply by being in covenantal relationship with one another; bound by our shared humanity. For me, this was never validated more powerfully than during a recent, unexpected trip to Rome. I was invited to join a delegation of twenty interfaith leaders and organizers from the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to meet with Pope Francis for a conversation in his residence in Vatican City. I embarked with the blessings of the leadership of Temple Solel, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. At the beginning of our meeting, the Pope thanked us for inconveniencing ourselves to come and see him. Imagine that!
What ensued was a true dialogue, a 90-minute conversation in Spanish with lots of back and forth engagement (I was one of five non-Spanish speaking leaders, fully participating thanks to headphones and a translator!). The encounter was filled with many blessed exchanges about the joys and struggles of our work; affirming the central role faith institutions play in building community through the pursuit of justice, especially for those on the margins.
As we shared our community organizing experiences, we were all struck by how carefully Pope Francis listened. I was profoundly moved by his humility. He listens lovingly, from a place of curiosity, openness, and humor. He loves to smile and laugh! The Pope was just fun to be with!
The Pope heard us tell stories of organizing around our local issues. He was touched when hearing about how becoming a public person restores dignity and develops a sense of one’s agency. What really struck the Pope is that we were not talking about theory or ideology, but rather real-life stories that described experiencing God through encounters with the other. The room was filled with kindred spirits.
Pope Francis stressed the importance of being with people, of paying attention to their reality, emphasizing what he referred to as “amor concreto,” concrete love. The Pope lives in love. He’s been walking the talk of his ministry from the barrios of Argentina to the Vatican—seeing and hearing injustice, acting for systemic change, and being changed in return. He celebrated the value that we place on leadership development and strategic action; of doing rather than complaining about what’s not being done; of acting without disparaging or demonizing. The Pope, though just learning about us, remarked that the IAF is “good news for the United States.”
What profound validation for the local work of the Valley Interfaith Project (VIP), our IAF network affiliate. I feel great pride that Temple Solel has been a member of VIP for fifteen years, acting together within a broad-based interfaith organization to carry words of Torah into the real world. Throughout his encyclicals and many writings, the Pope appreciates the radical nature of the Hebrew Bible, as the foundation of Christian Scripture. He understands that it’s impossible to realize words of scripture without entering into the fray of the public square, without ruffling some feathers. He has never sought refuge in an ivory tower. Pope Francis, looking at each of us directly in the eye, said, “the only time you should look down at someone, is when you are helping to lift them up.”
At the conclusion of our conversation, I presented Pope Francis with a leatherbound and gold leaf Hebrew Bible. I said to him, through a translator, “Your Holiness, I have never been more certain, that we stand on common ground.” The Pope got a kick out of it when I told him that my (almost) 94-year-old mother-in-law inscribed the book the night before my flight to Rome.
I think about the unlikely paths that brought each of the twenty members of the IAF delegation together—paths paved by the common values of our sacred texts, which merged into a collective pilgrimage to Rome, to be touched by the presence and soul of this magnificent man, all of us recognizing that the ground upon which we stand as brothers and sisters is, indeed, holy ground. Now back home, we are strengthened by one another, interconnected through our respective faiths, emboldened and blessed by Pope Francis to continue our sacred work, channeling the words of Micah, to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
Rabbi John A. Linder serves Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Arizona.