Judy Banki, a Jewish scholar who has devoted her life's work to Jewish-Christian relations, said she can see a spirit of reconciliation in Pope Francis. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Banki is one of the last surviving collaborators on the groundbreaking Nostra Aetate document, a 1965 Vatican II declaration that sought to end historic resentments between Catholics and Jews. Almost exactly 50 years later, Banki said Pope Francis has kept alive the legacy of the document that "reversed a 2,000-year tradition of hostility and negativism toward Jews," by sowing stronger ties between Christian and Jewish communities.
“He has expressed a very strong sense of friendship and shared values with the Jewish religious community,” said Banki, noting his close professional and personal relationship with Abraham Skorka, a prominent rabbi. She said the pope’s passion for economic fairness and concerns for the poor were interests that Jewish communities shared.
Pope Francis' visit to the United States this week was a landmark event, and not just for U.S. Catholics. The pope's historic openness toward non-Catholics and even atheists has allowed him to garner inter-faith support to advance his message of humility and equality. Religious leaders and activist groups said they have been won over by the pontiff's focus on charity, which has allowed various faith leaders to work together to highlight social issues including climate change and world poverty.
"It takes all of us to change systems that impoverish our sisters and brothers," Pope Francis said in July during a eight-day visit to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
Some of the pope’s greatest strides have been made within a Christian community that has often been splintered. The pope enjoyed approval from 74 percent of Protestants this year, up nearly 10 points from the 65 percent approval in March 2013, according to a Pew Research survey published in March.
“He uses a very reconciliatory language in talking about different faiths,” said Frank Fredericks, an activist who identifies as Evangelical. Fredericks, 30, is the director of operations for Faith House Manhattan, a New York-based organization that works to create faith immersion activities that allow New Yorkers to experience different religions.
Fredericks said Protestants have historically been excluded from papal discussions on Christianity, and that Francis’ language and deeds have been much more inclusive. “Through action, he’s sending the message that you can’t fulfill your faith without serving people beyond your community,” he said.
Pope Francis has also worked to win over non-believers. One of the most favorable opinion shifts throughout his papacy has been among people who are not affiliated with any religion. Approval from unaffiliated respondents jumped from only 39 percent near the beginning of his papacy in March 2013 to 68 percent in February 2015, according to the Pew Research poll.
His holiness first addressed atheists specifically in a May 2013 sermon that shocked many practicing Catholics and sent ripples through the conservative Catholic community. "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!” said Francis, adding “Even the atheists. Everyone!"
Conservative Catholic leadership quickly insisted that the pope was not saying atheists would go to heaven, which is against Catholic doctrine. The sermon excerpt was printed and re-printed in newspapers across the world, however, and understood by many as recognition of the spiritual worth of atheists.
Francis did more than just say he would include atheists in his papacy. He appointed Naomi Klein, a secular Jewish feminist, to his task force on climate change in July in a concrete move to include a variety of voices in his mission.
“Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” Francis said Wednesday after meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.
Religious leaders have credited Francis’ success with the way he has emphasized charity and social justice in his sermons, more often than technical theological questions. “He is interested in peace and justice issues which transcend creed and dogma,” said Fred Stella, 60, a practicing Hindu who is the president of the Interfaith Dialogue Association, a non-profit based out of Grand Rapids Michigan that encourages inter-religious communication through conferences and other events.
Stella was raised Catholic and attended the University of Detroit, a Jesuit school, even after he converted to Hinduism at age 15. Given his unique position at the juncture of two different faiths, he noted that one of the road bumps in the pope’s relations with non-Catholics was a general public's frequent misunderstanding of the theological proscriptions of the Catholic Church, especially concerning gender and sexuality.
“People who don’t understand how the church really worked hoped he would change all that,” said Stella, referencing questions surrounding gay marriage especially. Those expectations were unreasonable he said, adding “If you’re the president you can’t just decide to add another state.”
Even stark differences of opinion are not necessarily obstacles to the pope’s interfaith message, according to one expert who said that lasting interfaith dialogue needs to be built around an embrace of difference. “I would love to hear some of the language be more about ‘see how different we are and we can still get together,’” said Jennifer Peace, an associate professor of interfaith studies at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, adding “I think similarity-based dialogue will only get us so far.”
“It will be interesting to see what happens when we go beyond the common human concerns, and talk more about the deep differences,” she said.