By: Emily Lingenfelter ~Staff Writer~
Three Xavier-affiliated men — Rabbi Abie Ingber, executive director of interfaith community engagement; Dr. James Buchanan, executive director of the Edward B. Brueggeman Center for Dialogue; and Dr. William Madges, theological professor of St. Joseph’s University — traveled to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Francis I on Sept. 16.
The personal encounter came as a result of the multimedia traveling exhibit “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” which captures the story of the late Pope John Paul II’s relationship with his childhood friend, Jerzy Kluger, and other members of the Jewish community. The exhibit began at Xavier in 2005, and since then it has reached more than one million people on its journey around the U.S. and to the Vatican.
Upon his return, the Newswire had the opportunity to speak with Ingber about his experience.
Describe the first interactions between you and Pope Francis?
The initial moment of our meeting is something I will never forget. The Holy Father saw my Kippah, which is a head covering, and heard me say that I’m a rabbi. The first words out of his mouth were, “Happy New Year.” You see, we had just celebrated the Jewish New Year, and it was incredible that he was instantly aware that the Jewish New Year just passed. What we try to do in the Interfaith Center is take people from tolerance to celebration, and here in three words, “Happy New Year,” the pope did it. He didn’t know because the holiday popped up in his Google calendar, but because of his relationship with the Jewish community and Rabbi Skorka (the pope’s close friend) in particular.
How was the encounter unique from past experiences?
Pope Francis I is my fifth papal audience. I had two opportunities with Pope John Paul II (the second was also with Dr. Buchanan). Then I had two opportunities to be with Pope Benedict XVI. I’d say that my first audience with John Paul II was spiritually charged. When I touched his hand, I felt electricity in my back. There was magic to it.
Now, my first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI was surprising, because I found some genuineness in him as he went out of his way over and over and over again — literally three times — to come back to me and say that the work we were doing was very important. The second meeting with Benedict was, again, business. It was about studying Pius XII and the controversy about what he did — or didn’t do — during the Holocaust and World War II. Then, Pope Francis — there is no question about it. The warmth, the embrace, the authenticity from him — what millions of people in America saw in his visit — I had it all rolled up into three minutes or so. It was just incredible.
Was it different from how you imagined?
Actually, there was a very little miracle on that day. For the meetings, we chose to present two gifts to Pope Francis I. One is an oil painting on linen, which pictures his mother. The painting was made by a local woman named Holly Schapker. The second piece of art was a beautiful calligraphy text from Psalm 133 that says, “Behold, how good and beautiful it is for brothers to dwell together.” We had shipped the two presents to the Vatican because it was easier to the alternative of packing and carrying the painting.
Here’s the plot twist — we discovered that it never got moved from the Vatican bookstore to our exhibit, where we planned to pick it up on Tuesday night and bring it to the audience. So James, Bill and I are literally sitting in the front row, anxious and sweating because here we were, going up to see the pope and thinking of something to say such as, “The gifts we have for you, they have actually been lost somewhere in the Vatican. We don’t have them!”
A lady named Nicky, who is a part of the logistics team in Rome, she sat relatively near us — maybe eight rows behind — and she left the audience because she heard of our trouble. She maneuvered through the 20- some layers of the Vatican and just before we went up to greet the Holy Father, she brought the two gifts to us. It was a miracle of the gifts. We were not going to look like three wise men without gifts to bring.
What did this trip mean to you?
We opened the exhibit with Pope John Paul II back 10 years ago, in May of 2005. This was, on the one hand, a closing of the exhibit’s run. It couldn’t have been any better than to be at the Vatican. It was also an endpoint personally. What I mean by that, my parents are Holocaust survivors. To know that in my lifetime, our family could go from paying the price for an unbridled, anti-Semitic structure that destroyed human life — in my case, my grandparents, aunts, uncles and family members — to literally, their son being at the Vatican, where the pope acknowledges his Jewishness so effortlessly and so beautifully.
It was a circle, but then it was also a new beginning and a new end on a whole different level. We announced on Thursday night of the Gala that exhibit will now go to Krokow, Poland, and it will permanently be housed in Poland. I cannot wait to be a part of the installation, to take all four of my daughters to Poland, and to not only show them where we once lived, but how in just a lifetime, the world can come back to its senses.