On Heaven and Earth 90

Scholarly dialogue on human flourishing and compassion for people are what makes this special.

On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-first Century
Authors: Jorge Mario Bergoglio & Abraham Skorka
Publisher: Image
Pages: 236

Something in me wants to champion the underdog. I see the least of these. Maybe it’s because I am one. I also recognize that some of the best gifts come in plain packages. There may be little hint of the treasures within.

It may be why I am pleased to draw attention to On Heaven and Earth. In the canon of books that come from Pope Francis, this may get overlooked and not be highly regarded.

It’s the illegitimate child, written before Francis became Pope. It was first published in Argentina in 2010, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pope was a cardinal. It was never planned as a book.

It grew from an interfaith dialogue with Rabbi Abraham Skorka. The mutual high regard and close bonds that formed prompted the rabbi to propose a book, to which Bergoglio immediately assented.

Would you rather see a sermon than hear one? The cardinal and rabbi provide a lesson in civil discourse that could replace many a sermon.

Even though they retain differences, in writing “On Religious Leaders,” they agree and embody a key virtue. Skorka writes in reference to Jeremiah 27, “The other concept that this story teaches us has to do with the most important term that should define a religious leader—the only virtue that the Torah explicitly applies to Moses—humility. Any religious leader that is prideful and lacks humility, who talks arrogantly and in absolutes, is not a good religious leader” (31). Further in the conversation, Bergoglio writes, “Taking up the theme of religious ministers, humility is what gives assurance that the Lord is there. When someone is self-sufficient, when he has all the answers to every question, it is proof that God is not with him” (33).

The two leaders tackle a host of subjects from predominantly ideological viewpoints. Theology enters in, but the book deals a lot with human flourishing. Scholarly reflections combined with compassion for people and communities are the highlights for me.

Subject matter that includes guilt, fundamentalism, women, politics and power, abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage, communism and capitalism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict are more than a little interesting. How many books feature a frank discussion by a rabbi and pope on the Holocaust?

Each topic covers a few pages where the participants respond to each other. The brevity constrains the depth but makes it a quick reference guide. Argentine politics and history occasionally enter in but don’t significantly detract.

For those who desire understanding, this book is helpful. Communicating with those who have different views can refine our own, helping us to see what we may have overlooked, or where we could be wrong. It can also foster intimate bonds as it did here between a future pope and a rabbi. Even when disagreements remain, how much better it is to see a person as someone to be respected and loved rather than an adversary.

Michael Dalton