When Anne Virag arrived in Rome, one day before a scheduled meeting with Pope Francis, she didn’t feel nervous about the monumental occasion.
As the meeting grew closer, Virag — part of the American Jewish Committee’s 50-person delegation to the Vatican this February — did not have any time to let those nerves build as she was whisked from event to event, traveling through private entrances to see sights such as the Sistine Chapel.
It wasn’t until the moment came when Virag shook hands with the pope — “I’d put a lot of exclamation marks after that,” she said — that the weight of the moment finally overwhelmed her. She had a statement she was prepared to share with the religious leader, but she was unable to get much out after “Your holiness.”
“I didn’t say very much because I was too nervous,” Virag said. “He held my hand with a firm grip, almost to stop it from shaking.”
Two months later, Virag, the regional president of AJC, said she frequently thinks about the visit. First and foremost, the trip was an opportunity to build on the inter-religious relationship between Catholic and Jewish people. The meeting came one year before the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, a Vatican document that speaks to and encourages a bond between people of the two faiths.
February’s meeting gave AJC the opportunity to reaffirm that bond with a new leader. AJC President Stanley Bergman told the pope: “We come to you with a deep feeling that you are our friend, and that we are yours.” In a statement to the delegation, Pope Francis applauded the attempts to strengthen the relationship between the religions.
“I am very grateful to you for the distinguished contribution you have made to dialogue and fraternity between Jews and Catholics, and I encourage you to continue on this path,” Pope Francis said.
For Virag, that interfaith bond has a personal connection. She was raised Roman Catholic before converting to Judaism more than 30 years ago. She said she remembers a time when the bond between members of the two faiths was not as strong. When she was a girl, she said, the idea of dating a Jewish person was not even an option. Even today, some obstacles still remain.
“I understand, having been a Catholic and now Jewish, there is a barrier there between people,” Virag said.
Having met with the newest pope, she has a renewed confidence that those barriers are being erased. She said his focus on helping the poor was an important way to foster relationships between people of all backgrounds, and that it was a goal he shared with AJC. If more people adopt that worldview, she said, other problems may begin to fade.
“We don’t think enough about each other,” Virag said. “We’re too quick to think about ourselves.”
Throughout the trip, Virag said the group received a warm reception from the cardinals, archbishops and other leaders they met. She was struck by the sights in Rome and Vatican City — by the sheer scale of St. Peter’s Basilica and the intricate artwork adorning all of the rooms they visited.
“It was beyond beautiful,” she said. “It was peaceful. It was inspiring.”
Above all, though, the 45-minute conference with Pope Francis was Virag’s lasting takeaway from the trip. He took the time to bless rosaries and other personal items for the AJC delegation. He blessed Virag’s Star of David necklace she was wearing at the time; when she wears it today, she finds herself touching it and reminiscing about the beauty of her experience.
Those in attendance were awe-struck, Virag said. As the delegates took a moment to meet with the pope individually, the significance of the occasion moved each of them.
“I had a tear in my eye, and he looked at me and he smiled,” Virag said. “I think he felt the emotion of all of us — each and every one of us had a special emotional feeling with him.”
Even after the pope left, a silence filled the room for what Virag said felt like an eternity.
It’s too early for Virag to know just how the trip will affect her life going forward, religious and otherwise.
Still, she can safely say that it was a powerful event that will remain with her for a long time.
“I just feel that it was a once-in-a-lifetime gift that I was given, to be able to meet him,” she said.
Contact David Conway at [email protected].