As I write these words, I savor the memories of our recent trip to Rome to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our formal agreement with the local Jewish community. That agreement, signed in May of 1996, summed up years of honest, patient and respectful conversation by many people in our two communities. It was also a moment of new beginnings for all of us who are committed to constructive and respectful relationships between our communities.
For me — and, I think, for most of our group — the highlight of those days was our participation in a weekly general audience with our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. It was a memorable experience for all of us to be present for such an enriching experience. For us Roman Catholics, an audience with the pope is a privileged moment to reflect on our communion of life. It is a moment to remember our bonds with Catholics all over the world. It is a time of special communion with our mothers and fathers in faith.
For our Jewish friends, the audience offered some experience of the ministry of the successor to Peter who is the human sign of our unity and the one who presides in charity over the church universal.
As I experienced the audience that day, I was much impressed by the manner in which Pope Benedict responded to both of those charges. In his words and in his demeanor he communicated a warm, pastoral presence. His words and actions were an invitation to be mindful of the communion of faith and charity to which we are all called.
His spiritual message that day was a reflection on a psalm whose principal theme is God’s mercy. That biblical selection was especially pleasing to our Jewish friends; no less so was the fact that Pope Benedict used the Hebrew word for mercy in his remarks.
No less effective than his words was his obvious attentiveness to those present for the audience. A few groups such as ours were fortunate enough to be quite close to the pope; others were at some distance. But it was clear that, whether they were near or far, Benedict delighted in the presence of all. And he found ways to communicate that delight.
One of my fondest memories of the day was his warm individual greeting to those presented to him who were confined to wheelchairs. Their chairs were very close to him during the audience and, at its conclusion, the 40 to 50 people in those chairs wheeled up to him for greetings and a blessing.
When Pope Benedict finished greeting the people in wheelchairs, he approached the section where our Rochester group was located. Thanks to the kindness of Archbishop James Harvey, who serves the pope, I had the pleasure of presenting to the Holy Father three members of our party: Larry Fine and Eli Futerman of the Jewish Community Federation and Rabbi Alan Katz of the Board of Rabbis. It was a very special moment for me to see these three gentlemen and Pope Benedict greet one another so warmly.
One final note: Pope Benedict took a moment to greet personally each of the 45 bishops from all over the world who were present at the audience. I was able to offer him the love, prayers and support of all of us in the Diocese of Rochester and to offer him our best wishes in his ministry to the church universal. He expressed thanks for those good wishes and asked me to convey to you his gratitude, prayers and blessings.
My life circumstances have been such that I have had the opportunity to be at audiences with Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I have enjoyed each one very much, but none more than I enjoyed the one on which I have just commented. In many ways it moved me in mind and heart to rejoice in the faith that makes us one.
Peace to all.