Rabbi Yeheil Poupko

I remember Cardinal George

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The first time I met Cardinal Francis George, it was in a meeting with a group of rabbis in the first months after he came to Chicago. 

I asked him, “You have come to a city with a robust Catholic-Jewish relationship, established and cultivated by your predecessor, Cardinal Bernardin. Do you have any concerns about the Catholic-Jewish relationship?” 

He replied, “Yes. I fear that it will remain the same.” 

I will never forget this response. It was emblematic of who he was as a person, an intellectual, a Christian and a religious and civic leader. He lived a Jewish maxim. The greatest fate to befall a human is to remain the same. Cardinal George was never just satisfied with the way things were. He understood that one has to constantly deepen and enrich the gift of life. 

He enriched the Catholic-Jewish relationship in profound ways. Let me tell you some stories. 

On behalf of Catholic Relief Services he went to Ukraine in 2005 and invited me to join him. He wanted to see the relief services that the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago made possible for the Jewish community in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine. He also wanted to stand together in witness at Babi Yar, where on Sept. 28 and 29, 1941, the Germans murdered 33,700 Jews.

I asked him what we should pray. He said Psalm 130, “Out of the depths O’ Lord, I call to you,” because Pope John Paul II had been in Ukraine in June 2000, and prayed that psalm at Babi Yar. Overlooking the ravine where the Jewish people had been murdered, we stood in silence. He called to mind the suffering of the Jewish people in Christian Europe over the previous 1,000 years. 

As we were leaving he taught me that the genocide of the Jewish people was not just a genocide. It was a deicide. It was an attempt to kill the God of Israel by murdering Israel in whose midst God dwells. 

I had the exquisite pleasure of visiting Israel together with His Eminence. We stood before the Western Wall, to the right of the prayer section. 

On the other side of the ramp leading up to the Temple Mount are magnificent archaeological remains from the Second Temple, including the very streets that Jesus walked. There is a pile of monumental stones heaped one upon the other, helter-skelter. Archaeologists seek events frozen in time. 

This pile of stones is a historic event frozen in time. The Romans destroyed the Beit Ha’Mikdash, the Second Temple, in the year 70. When they were atop the Temple Mount they tossed down these massive stones one upon the other, a massive pile of rubble. 

Traditionally, some Jews, when they see the destroyed Temple rend a piece of their clothing in mourning. I did so. 

I turned to His Eminence and said, “This was a great catastrophe for the Jewish people. To this very day we mourn.” The cardinal replied, “This was a terrible tragedy for Christians as well. This was the House of God, where God and Israel met. When it was destroyed it was a terrible loss.”

Later that day we went to the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. I assumed that what would most interest the cardinal would be the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are critical to an understanding of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

What really caught his fancy in the Shrine of the Book was another great book, the Aleppo Codex. In the 10th century, a group of Jewish scribes gathered in Tiberias and produced an authoritative book, or codex, of the entire Hebrew Bible. We the Jewish people, as dispersed as we were, needed one uniform text of the Torah to hold us together. 

This text came to be in the custodianship of the Jews of Aleppo, Syria. With great pride and devotion they cared for it and maintained it until 1948, when, with the establishment of the State of Israel, the Syrians expelled the Jews, along with a series of pogroms. In one of those pogroms the great synagogue of Aleppo was set on fire, the codex was damaged, but with the help of Israeli intelligence, it was brought to Israel. 

Cardinal George was moved by this codex. I asked him, “Your Eminence, tell me why this book, only a thousand years old, younger by a millennium than the Dead Sea Scrolls, is so important for you? Why are you so visibly moved by this?” 

He explained: For a group of scribes to gather together in the Middle Ages to produce an authoritative text to unite the whole Jewish people, and for that copy to be preserved with such faithfulness for nearly 1,000 years, “expresses the Jewish devotion to the word of God. This is what has kept you all these years.” 

He was in Israel for a variety of reasons, but the focus of the trip was a project launched and funded by the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. While Israel is the only one of the 18 countries of the Middle East whose Christian population is growing and secure, nevertheless it is a small population. 

The Christian Arab population is about 160,000. It is a population that is a double minority. The Christian Arabs of Israel are Arabs who are not Muslim, and Israelis who are not Jewish. 

In order to help secure their economic welfare, and hence their continued living in the land, the archdiocese and the Jewish Federation funded a project that rejuvenated a small all-Catholic community in the north of Israel in the village of Fassouta. Both institutions supplied funding for the implementation of a high-level program of technology training based on the notion that one is less likely to emigrate if one can earn a good living. 

His Eminence graced us with his presence in our home for many a Friday evening Shabbat dinner. The first time he was in our home he was fascinated by the pictures of several old and venerable rabbis. He wanted to know about these people. 

I explained, these are my grandfathers, my great-grandfathers, my great-great-grandfathers going back many generations, all of whom were rabbis and faithful servants of the Jewish people and God. I paused and I said to the cardinal, “This is an ‘only in America’ moment. God has blessed us by bringing us to these shores. Given where my fathers and mothers before me lived, they would never imagine that a grandchild of theirs would sit at a Shabbat table with a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.”

We sat down and had the first of many Shabbat dinners together. This is my friend, Francis Cardinal George. Remember him well.

This column marks the third anniversary of Cardinal George’s death on April 17, 2015.


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