A friend recently asked me if I think it’s selfish for Pope Francis to come to the United States during Yom Kippur. My answer was: No, probably not.
For one thing, the timing of his trip was pretty much set long before Francis became pope. He’s coming for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, which his predecessor, Benedict XVI, promised to attend before he stepped down from the papacy. And he’s a busy guy; in traveling around the world to meet with Catholics, it would be difficult to schedule around every minority religious group’s conflicts.
Still, my friend has a point. The pope is making stops in D.C., New York, and Philadelphia—three of the most Jewish cities in the country. Traveling to see family, and even traveling within one’s own city, will be much more difficult because of traffic blockades. Symbolically, it feels like a moment of exclusion: On the day when the most powerful religious figure in the world meets with the most powerful political leader in the world in the White House, Jews will be unable to take part.
For its part, the Obama administration is aware of the awkwardness. On a call with reporters last week, the deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, said the pope’s schedule wasn’t flexible, but “we were very focused on making sure the American Jewish community could be part of important interfaith efforts.” It’s hard to say what the pope is aware of, but he has long been a friend of the Jewish people. Back when he was just Bergoglio and not yet Francis, he began a friendship with the Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka; the two even co-authored a book featuring their conversations on subjects from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Holocaust. He has spoken about the connections between Jews and Christians, saying in a 2014 interview that “inside every Christian is a Jew” and criticizing Holocaust deniers.