I had my meeting with the Pope today at his Wednesday audience. Let me first give you an idea of the setting.
There were approximately fifteen thousand people from all over the world gathered in St. Peter’s Square speaking an untold number of languages. The sun shone very brightly. The day was perfect. The Pope arrived in his pope-mobile to great excitement and fanfare. His vehicle was open-top. I assumed they didn’t need the protective bubble that has become so iconic on TV because there was security screening for each person present. As the Pope drove among the crowd they shouted ‘Viva Papa - Long live the Pope.’ There seemed to be genuine affection and excitement among the Catholic pilgrims who had gathered from all over the world.
The pope drove up the incline and arrived in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. The people who were there to meet him sat on both sides of his dais. There were clergymen from all over the world: Cardinals, Bishops, and priests from the Catholic Church. I sat next to three Anglican Bishops from the UK. With me was my friend Gary Krupp, head of the Pave the Way Foundation, who had arranged the visit and several of his officers.
The Pope read greetings in five languages and an American priest welcomed our group publicly from the Pope’s dais. The Pope waved to us.
When the formal ceremony, lasting about two hours ended, the Pope came off his dais and moved along the receiving line to greet us. Gary introduced me to the Pope warmly with my formal titles. I gave the Pope a special gift we had gotten for him. It was a beautiful dual-time Phillip Stein watch. The Pope lit up when he saw it and said, “Look, it has two faces on it,” which, as it happened, was the perfect introduction for me to share the issues I had prepared. I said, “Pope Benedict, it’s an honor to meet you. This watch has the times of Rome and Jerusalem on it, signifying the eternal friendship between our two faiths. I also hope that when you wear it the future of the Jewish people will always be on your mind, as Israel struggles with existential threats, like Iran, who threaten to wipe it off the map. You’re voice against these threats is essential, your holiness.”
He said ‘Yes,’ nodding his head in agreement, and I continued.
“In addition, Your holiness, the dual clock face is a symbol of my request that you please join us in establishing a global family dinner night which we call, ‘Turn Friday Night into Family Night.’ It involves what we call the triple two. Two hours of uninterrupted time that parents give their kids, inviting two guests, just as I am your guest today, and discussing two important subjects.”
While I said this Pope Benedict again nodded.
I concluded, “Your holiness, it’s so important that our two religions work together on this.” He said warmly, “We will work together. We will work together.” He held my hand while we spoke. The watch we gave the Pope as a gift has special resonance because the president of the company that made it, Will Stein, is an orthodox German who converted to Judaism.
I had invited my close friends David Victor, Chairman of the Board of AIPAC, and Rodney Adler, to the meeting with the Pope. Rodney emphasized to the Pope the importance of partnering with me on creating an international family dinner night and how much he believed in the idea. The Pope again warmly agreed. David then respectfully, but firmly, pressed the Pope on the need to address the Iran crisis, ‘a regime which denies the Holocaust and threatens to destroy Israel and is building nuclear weapons.’ The Pope said, “I have spoken about it and will continue to.”
As soon as the meeting was over, I was granted another meeting with Cardinal Walter Casper, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.’ Gary introduced me to the Cardinal and made a strong pitch for the importance of the worldwide Church partnering with us to create our international family dinner initiative. The Cardinal, a very pleasant priest from Germany who has been close friends with Pope Benedict for forty years, strongly endorsed the idea and related his memories of family dinners with his own parents.
I made the case to the Cardinal that the pedophile priest scandal has many influential American commentators skewering the Church for being an all-boys club, seemingly anti-family. It was essential, I argued, that the Church recapture its reputation as one of the world’s foremost champions of the family. He agreed emphatically and said he agreed that the Church should partner with us.
My friend David Victor then again brought up the threat that Iran poses to Israel. The Cardinal said that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to the world. He asked David to write to him and Cardinal Bertone, the Cardinal Secretary of State, with suggestions of what could be done.
It was an exciting day. Five of my nine children were with me, as well as both my parents.
I’ll share more later, G-d willing.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network. On May 14th he will publish his major work on Jewish values, Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life. www.shmuley.com.