PHILADELPHIA — Dialogue and encounter have been two of the popular buzzwords of the Francis papacy, but for one of the pope’s major interreligious interlocutors, they are more than mere maxims, they are a way of life.

For two decades, Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Skorka have been friends — brothers, in fact — which is how he still addresses his old pal via e-mail or phone calls when they speak.

The two first met in 1997 in Buenos Aires and struck up a friendship initially over sports but one that would lead to a co-authored book and a series of public dialogues on a range of hot button issues from sex to death and everything in between.

Less than 24 hours after the pope returned from Africa — where on the return flight to Rome, Francis said he welcomes honest criticism as a means of dialogue, but sought to distinguish it from his critics who he said are motivated by their political ideologies — I sat down with Skorka in his office at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where he is now a Professor in the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations to tease out the pope’s words a bit further.

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“For us, dialogue is a very important concept,” Skorka begins. “The only way to reach peace, to build up a better world, is through the development of real and deep dialogue. Real dialogue is to develop empathy with the other.”

And then, like his Argentine compatriot, he quickly pivots to a literary reference to make his point, grabbing a book off the shelf citing the Israeli writer Yehuda Amichai’s poem “Jerusalem.”

In the poem, written before the Six-Day War in 1967 when a wall divided Jerusalem — separating Jews on the western side and Arabs on the eastern side — the author says he can see a balloon that a child is holding on one side of the wall, but he can only see the balloon and not the kid who holds it because of the barrier.

“You must have the opportunity know the other,” Skorka says of the poem. “You must know what he thinks, what he feels.”

“This is the reality of hate,” he continues. “You develop hate based on the ignorance you have toward the other. To dialogue, then, is to go deep with the other to open the heart to the other…to have the courage to hear what the other says to you and how the other feels.”

This is why, Skorka says, Francis makes a distinction between those who offer loyal criticism and those who, as the pope said earlier this week, do it “under the table.”

“When they smile and then stick the knife from behind, this is not loyal,” Francis told reporters on Tuesday.

Skorka’s advice to these critics? Read the Gospels.

“You have here in America, groups of Catholics which are very, very conservative and they don’t like the behavior of Bergoglio and his understanding of how he is developing his papacy,” said Skorka.

But as a Jew, the rabbi says his reading of the Gospels, particularly the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke which “are very close to the spirit of rabbinic discussions in the Talmud” provides insight into the values that Bergoglio has made central to his papacy.

“Jesus was, in his time, a revolutionary. He tried to fight for the purity or pureness of the souls of the people,” said Skorka. “He’s not only a Jesuit because he belongs to Loyola’s company. He is a Jesuit because the paradigm of his understanding of faith, of Christianity, is Jesus. Jesus fought for the poor, as the pope is doing. Jesus fought for the people who are not so clean, so pure but they are looking for pureness, for the people with problems. For each person that is fighting with himself in order to get better, to be a better person, he will be close to those people.”

“In the same way Jesus was revolutionary, he tries to continue this and follow in his footsteps. He tries to renew and to purify the Church and for a conservative person, to renew is not a possibility, because he tries to maintain the structures in the way that they are,” adding that such a resistance isn’t particular to America, but “in many places in the world.”

Outside of Italy, perhaps the United States is second only to one other country in its buzz over Francis — that of his homeland of Argentina, where six years into his papacy, the pope has yet to visit.

Skorka, who first met Bergoglio when he was the head of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, says it’s “difficult” for outsiders to understand why the pope hasn’t chosen to return to Argentina, but ultimately, he “hasn’t found yet the proper political moment.”

In their own private discussions, Skorka says the pope has noted that he has felt used when certain politicians from the country have visited Rome. The pope doesn’t want to run that same risk on a larger stage during a potential homecoming visit, Skorka believes.

“Argentina is a politicized country,” he said, saying that the pope will visit when the moment is right and he can use such a trip to close the gaps on the country’s divisions rather than add to them.

In seeking to illustrate the pope’s thinking on this, the rabbi recalls the days when the pair held a series of public dialogues on topics such as abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, the economy, and more.

“The aim wasn’t to merely show dialogue between the rabbi and the archbishop. I felt that the message was much more than that,” said Skorka. “The message was to the whole of Argentinian society to say: ‘look, in the past, Jews have clashed with Catholics, and the history between Jews and Catholics was so tragic. We are now sitting around the table, talking and laughing.’”

“That helped to close the gaps,” said Skorka, adding that when Francis feels a papal visit will have the same effect, he’ll return to Argentina.

Along with regular trips to Rome, Skorka has accompanied Francis on a number of his papal pilgrimages, including Poland, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, where the two are continuing their ongoing work of bringing faith leaders together for common cause.

Nostra aetate, a 1965 Vatican II document, provided a reset for Jewish-Catholic relations by acknowledging the shared bond between Christians and the Jewish people and called for mutual respect, engagement, and dialogue.

“Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity developed in the same womb,” so the two faiths share a “special relationship,” he said, adding that the work that lies ahead is continuing to define more clearly the theological differences between the two faiths. In recent years he’s seen greater openness on the part of orthodox rabbis to engage in this type of dialogue.

Looking ahead, he says he has a vision of a future gathering in Israel where leaders of “all of the countries of the Middle East” will be present, with the support of the Vatican, “in order to spread a message of peace to the whole world.”

For now, he’s encouraged by the recent “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” which was signed by Francis and the Grand Imam of Egypt in Abu Dhabi in February.

“This is a very, very important document,” says Skorka, who keeps a copy of it displayed on his bookcase. “What this document says in a very clear way is that war and violence is not what God expects of human beings and is not the way to worship God. God rejects these kinds of human manifestations.”

“The signers of the document are representing millions and millions of people,” he said, noting that the pope is responsible for over a billion Catholics around the globe and the head of the Sunnis represents some 90 percent of the Islamic world.

“Now let this document have such an impact to be able to mark a way in the same way as Nostra aetate marked for our relations,” he continued. “I feel that it’s the first time in history that Catholicism came so close and so committed with the Muslim world in order to produce a great commitment to peace. This is an answer against all those people from all sides that are using constantly a language of hate and violence.”

Skorka, who was largely responsible for liaising between the Vatican and then Israeli President Shimon Peres in preparation for the pope’s 2014 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, describes that moment as an important marker along the way.

During one of the trip’s most memorable moments, Francis, Skorka, and Omar Abboud, the leader of Buenos Aires’s Islamic community, embraced each other together in front of the Western Wall, in an image that Skorka describes as “an icon of peace.”

When a few months after that visit, war broke out between Israel and Palestine in Gaza, Skorka recalls getting pushback from those who wondered what the purpose of the pope’s visit was — shouldn’t it have helped deliver on the long anticipated peace in the region, they argued.

Skorka wrote to the pope describing some of the sentiments he was hearing.

“We planted there a tree,” the pope responded. “After the dust of the battle clears, the tree will still flourish. And then our message will flourish.”

“Peace is not possible from one visit,” said Skorka, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth continuing to pursue. In fact, it’s that spirit of forging ahead that makes him certain that the pope intends to remain in office for a long time to come.

“I know very well my friend,” he said. “If God will continue blessing him with good health, he will stay put. He’s a fighter.”

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 

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