By Mary Sanchez

The most interesting thing about Argentine Pope Francis may be not just that he's the first Latin American to head the Vatican, but also that he may become the Church's biggest champion of interfaith dialogue ever.

I just read his book "About Heaven and Earth," which he co-authored in 2010 with Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and I was struck by the new pope's commitment to not only talk about interfaith dialogue, but to do something about it.

In light of what then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio says in the 222-page book, which was published in Spanish in Argentina but will surely become an international bestseller now, it comes as no surprise that during his installation speech at the Vatican on Tuesday there were so many signs of respect toward members of other religions.

In his inaugural Mass sermon, Pope Francis welcomed dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church, representatives of the Jewish community and other religious groups, and heads of state and government - in that order.

By comparison, there was no such reference to members of other religions in Pope Benedict XVI's inaugural Mass sermon on April 24, 2005. (Although, to be fair, the Vatican started to gradually improve ties with other religions under Pope John XXIII, John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.)

Among the estimated 150,000 people who gathered at St. Peter's Square for Francis' inauguration were large groups of Orthodox Christians, including their Istanbul-based leader Bartholomew I, the first patriarch of that church to attend a papal installation in nearly 1,000 years. There were also many rabbis, imams and evangelical pastors.

In his book, a dialogue with Skorka about religion, the Holocaust, politics and everyday life issues, Bergoglio proudly recalls his efforts to build bridges with other religious leaders during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

In addition to being a frequent guest at Jewish synagogues and inviting rabbis to Catholic Masses, hosting a TV show with Skorka and participating in ceremonies honoring the victims of the Holocaust, Bergoglio changed the protocol at official Te Deum ceremonies to acknowledge the presence of leaders of other religions.

In Argentina, a constitutionally Roman Catholic country where presidents usually attend the Te Deum on national holidays, it had long been a tradition for the archbishop of Buenos Aires to escort the president out of the church at the end of the ceremony.

"Religious leaders of other faiths were left alone in one space, as if you were puppets in an exhibition," Bergoglio tells the rabbi in the book. "I changed that tradition: now, the president walks toward you, and greets representatives of all religions."

Bergoglio was also a frequent guest at Evangelical Christian Masses and at Islamic religious ceremonies.

In the book, Bergoglio recalls being criticized by some members in his own Church in Argentina for having knelt in front of 7,000 attendants at an Evangelical Christian Mass at the Luna Park stadium in Buenos Aires. Later, a magazine carried a headline saying that the archbishop of Buenos Aires had turned his back on his Church for doing that. "For them, to pray with others was an act of apostasy," Bergoglio recalls, referring to the authors of that article. "(But) Everyone prays according to his tradition. What's the problem?"

Explaining the reasons behind his commitment to interfaith dialogue, Bergoglio says he is a firm believer in dialogue, which "assumes that the other has something good to say."

In another part of the book, he says that globalization should not be like a billiards ball, but rather like "a polyhedron, in which all sides integrate, but in which all sides at the same time maintain their peculiarities, and enrich one another."

My opinion: It would be great if Pope Francis applied this same open-mindedness to issues such as sexuality, condoms - he's against them, even in the context of trying to combat AIDS - and other social issues.

But in a world in which religion has caused so many wars - and still does - Pope Francis' record of interfaith dialogue is fabulous news. Unlike his most recent predecessor, Francis grew up in a city where religions have co-existed peacefully, and he has experience in working together with people from other faiths.

It will be great if he takes to the world stage what he did in Buenos Aires with other religious leaders, and shrugs criticism for doing that with a spontaneous, "What's the problem?"


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