It had been some time since I had been to Rome and had almost forgotten how impressive and overpowering Churches like St Peter's are and how wonderful the art is. It was the same with Assisi where I spent a day though this hill town is much more attractive than the boiling heat, dust and busyness of Rome. But at the heart of it is a certain simplicity. In Assisi it's the inspiration and challenge of St Francis whose life of simplicity and love of nature has much to teach us at this time when we are endangering and abusing our planet rather than caring for it. Similarly Pope Francis comes across as someone who is unimpressed by his surroundings as his focus is on people. We had been given instructions before the audience to keep the first three rows of chairs in the audience hall free for those who were to be presented to the Pope but once he arrived it was announced that he would greet everyone - 250 of us. This is quite a feat for someone who is 79 years old but he greeted everyone with a strong handshake, looked into our eyes and gave us a warm smile. This was a moment of real connection. He reminded me of the Dalai Lama whom I was once privileged to meet. He brushed aside all ceremony and greeted everyone present very warmly. It's this human touch that makes these two men so popular and inspiring and for me, anyway, shows what holiness and true religion is about.
The conference was also interesting. Many people commented on how the relationship between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church had been transformed over the past 50 years. Rabbi David Rosen was very insistent in suggesting that if this relationship could be transformed, any relationship could be transformed and that the document ' Nostra Aetate' was a sign of hope for the world.
So what has been transformed? For years the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations thought that God had rejected the Jews because they had refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah so that the Christian Church was now the true People of God. Jews were accused of deicide in that they were responsible for the death of Jesus, believed to be the Son of God. For centuries Christians had been suspicious of Jews, marking them out and making them live in ghettoes. Now the Church acknowledges that God is true to his promises, that God has not rejected the Jews, that God is still in a covenantal relationship with them and that they are indeed God's People. Any accusation of deicide is wrong and anti-semitism a sin. It's important to remember that Jesus, the apostles and followers of Jesus were all Jews. Perhaps the change can be best illustrated by comparing Pope Pius IX's remark that Jews were "no longer children, but dogs wandering through the streets" with Pope John Paul II who called the Jews his elder brothers. Sometimes familial conflicts can be more violent and exclusive than other conflicts. Thank goodness Christians and Jews are now recognising their familial relationship and working to establish peaceful and supportive relations with one another.
However the last word rests with Pope Francis " we are strangers no more, but friends, and brothers and sisters. We confess one God, Creator of the universe and Lord of History. And He, in His infinite goodness and wisdom, always blesses our commitment to dialogue".