What we can learn from two great popes

What we can learn from two great popes
© getty: Pope Francis

The late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, for whom our human rights NGO is named, gave us sage advice in 1977. This man, who lost 89 members of his family among the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis, urged us to forge alliances in the endless struggle against hate. “We cannot defeat anti-Semitism on our own,” Simon admonished. “We need new allies.”

We took that advice to heart. Over four decades, we’ve hosted presidents and royalty. We are especially proud of a three-decade outreach to the Arab and Muslim worlds. King Hussein of Jordan was the first to visit our Museum of Tolerance (MOT) and carried his MOT membership card in his wallet. We collaborated with the late Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid, who publicly denounced Iran’s denial of the Holocaust. We worked closely with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to build a more robust global multi-faith dialogue. And in recent years, we developed close relationships with Bahrain’s King Hamad and United Arab Emirates leaders, including Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, helping to create the building blocks of trust that led to the historic Abraham Accords.

Among the most important game-changing relationships that have emerged were those that came from within the walls of the Vatican.

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We will never forget our second and last private audience with Pope John Paul II. The pontiff from Poland transformed relations with the Jewish people through a series of firsts — the first pope to attend synagogue in Rome, first pope to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and the pope who finally established full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Jewish State of Israel. At that meeting with the critically ill pope, we witnessed a man whose spirit managed to defeat the physical, at least for that hour. John Paul II made that herculean effort because he shared our deep worry over the spread of suicide terror launched in the name of God. We discussed the need to activate faith leaders to find ways to stop this man-made scourge.

More recently, the Simon Wiesenthal Center screened a remarkable documentary about Pope FrancisPope FrancisPope on Europe's migrant crisis: 'stop this shipwreck of civilization' Pope calls on young people to protect environment The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Gosar censured as GOP drama heightens MORE, Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Francesco.”

We’ve had two private audiences with Pope Francis at the Vatican, but this remarkable but unflinching film provides profound insights into the challenges that this unique leader grapples with, in the age of COVID-19.

Some have to do with the existential crises confronting the Roman Catholic Church. “Francesco” gives voice to victims of serial sexual abuse, some by powerful clergy in the church, and it presents Pope Francis’s own initial missteps and failures on the issue, as well as his decision to show solidarity with the victims and take strong action against the victimizers.

We are introduced to a same-sex family and its question of whether they would be welcomed by their local parish.

“Francesco” poignantly captures a moving scene wherein Francis embraces and kisses a Holocaust survivor at Auschwitz, a place where the echoes of man’s inhumanity to man still reverberate — a place that stands as a silent warning to humankind, the price of silence and apathy in the face of pure evil.

It was Pope Francis’s embrace at the death camp that could explain what motivated an aging pope to travel halfway around the world to the Muslim nation of Bangladesh to embrace Rohingyas who fled by the tens of thousands from Myanmar’s brutal campaign against the Muslim minority — a group now largely forsaken by the world.

Or, it could explain why he defied rational advice not to travel to the Congo to personally lobby for peace when bullets were flying between warring factions.

Or, why he went to the Greek Isle of Lesbos, ground zero for the wave of Syrian refugees fleeing the heartless murderer of his own people, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. There, the pope prayed for those who drowned in the Mediterranean, and for those who survived to live another day but are uncertain about their future.

Perhaps the most surprising insight is the pope’s sounding of an alarm over the environment. “God always forgives, we men forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives,” he said in January 2015 on a flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, one of his various warnings about the way humans are treating the environment.

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Is anyone out there listening?

Many years ago, the late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren, sat down for a Bible study session with some of the Jewish state’s leaders. Noticing the weary faces and lethargic body language of his audience, Rabbi Goren queried: “Friends, I have answers — is there anyone here with a question?”

Turns out that, like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis has some powerful answers. We can only hope that the post-COVID world will ask a few questions — and then act to make the only world we know a better place for all.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Center’s associate dean and global social action director.