In a private audience with Pope Francis on Oct. 24, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), urged the leader of the Catholic Church to confront the evil that exists in the world, even while praying and working for peace.
“Evil existed during the time of Moses as it did in Jesus’ time and as it does in our own time,” Hier told Pope Francis, according to a transcript of his remarks.
Hier, who brought with him 62 SWC trustees and supporters to the meeting in the papal residence in Vatican City on Thursday, called the meeting “an extraordinary event.”
“We need non-Jews as friends,” Hier told the Journal on Oct. 25. “It matters to us that a pope who is the spiritual leader of 1 billion Christians should hear our concerns.”
Speaking to the Journal from Rome, Hier said he had considered limiting his remarks on Thursday to the subject of “human relations,” but ultimately decided against it.
“International issues are weighing on every Jewish home,” Hier said. “People are saying to themselves ‘What’s going to be with Iran?’ ‘Will there be peace with the Palestinians?’ And anti-Semitism is everywhere in Europe — so it was impossible just to make this just sort of a schmooze, talking about human relations and not to talk about the greater concerns of the Jewish community.”
Hier’s remarks were heavy with citations from traditional Jewish texts and did not make explicit mention of either Iran or the Palestinians. But coming at a time of increasing engagement by the United States and other Western powers in the Middle East, Hier’s message was still rather clear.
“[P]eace, like a doctor’s prescription, works only if one is willing to make lifestyle changes, diet, exercise, but there are millions of people who ignore their doctor’s advice,” he said.
So while the world must be open to the possibility of peace, it must also remember its failure to stand up to Hitler in the 1930s, and recognize that, in Hier’s words, “There are some nations who can’t compromise.”
Pope Francis, who addressed the group in Italian, condemned “any form of anti-Semitism,” and broadened that condemnation to include all manner of intolerance.
“When any minority is persecuted and marginalized on account of its religious beliefs or ethnic origin, the good of society as a whole is placed in danger, and we must all consider ourselves affected,” Pope Francis said, according to the Official Vatican Network. “I think with particular sadness of the suffering, marginalization and real persecution experienced by many Christians in various countries throughout the world. Let us unite our strengths to promote a culture of encounter, of mutual respect, understanding and forgiveness.”
The 62-person delegation — the largest Jewish group to meet Pope Francis to date, Hier said — included two Holocaust survivors, a handful of Christians, and one Muslim, Mohamed Alabbar, the chairman of Emaar Properties, the Emirati company that built the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
This was Hier’s fourth meeting with a sitting pope — he met twice with Pope John Paul II during his pontificate and once with Pope Benedict, in 2005. Hier said that Thursday’s meeting was initially scheduled as a meeting with Pope Benedict, who resigned the papacy in February of this year.
Pope Francis kept the arrangement, and Hier marveled at the differences in character between the current pontiff and his predecessors.
“He has the uncanny ability, when he is talking to a person, the rest of the world does not exist,” said Hier, describing what he saw as he introduced each member of his delegation to Pope Francis. “I did not find that in the other three audiences, even though Pope John Paul II was perhaps one of the greatest popes in the history of the church.”