What's a Jew to Do When the Pope Comes on Yom Kippur?

Francis visits the United States on the Day of Atonement—heading a Church that has, in recent decades, reformed its treatment of Jews.


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.

It has not always been this way. For example: Until 1959, the Latin word perfidis was used to describe Jews in the liturgy for Good Friday. While this word translates to mean “faithless” or “unbelieving," many misinterpreted it as meaning “perfidious.” Pope John XXIII had this word removed from the prayer.

Arguably, the most important change in the relationship between Jews and Catholics happened several years later in 1965, when the Second Vatican Council promulgated a document known as Nostra Aetate. This was the first time the Church had really made a statement on its relationship with the Jewish people—and the first time it formally declared that contemporary Jews can’t be held responsible for the death of Christ. Following the Holocaust and accusations of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe, this was a controversial and urgent first step toward reconciliation between the two religions.

That was 50 years ago. In the decades since Vatican II ended, popes have made pilgrimages to the Holy Land. A pope has visited Auschwitz and Yad Vashem. In 2015, a pope will visit the United States, the country with the second-biggest population of Jews in the world, on the Day of Atonement. He can be forgiven for that.