JERUSALEM, Israel — If you strained your eyes while at Pope Francis' Mass in Bethlehem last Sunday, you might have seen, stage left, a man in a dark suit and a black skullcap.
"Dude, they're all wearing kipot!" one of the journalists hollered to a friend, using the Hebrew word for the traditional Jewish head covering, which is, as it happens, identical in shape to the toppers worn by cardinals, bishops, and yes, even the Catholic pope.
The figure the journalists were looking for was Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an old friend of the pope's from their days of interreligious dialogue in Buenos Aires, and, for the first time in known history, a Jewish member of the pope's intimate entourage.
Skorka knows his predicament sounds like a joke.
"You are a rabbi and your friend becomes the pope, right?" he asks, in a conversation with GlobalPost.
And yet, he shrugs, "This is the way it is."
"He really is my friend. A real pal" — here he uses an earthy Argentine colloquialism, "amigo campechano" — "and he really was elected pope."
The biggest surprise of Pope Francis' Holy Land visit last weekend was the unexpected announcement that he will convene Israel's president — Shimon Peres, a secular Jew — and the Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas, a secular Muslim, to come together to "pray for peace" next month at the Vatican.
To all observers, it was clear the pontiff is positioning himself not just as a religious leader but as a political player, and stakeholder, in the faltering Middle East peace efforts, an unprecedented move by a pope.
The delicacy of the maneuvers left an open question: Who is the Pope's intermediary? Who made the initial approaches bridging the gap between religious and political? Some in the Argentine media posited that a prominent journalist, Henrique Cymerman, is acting on behalf of the pope.
But Israeli media focused more on the role of the man who may be the least likely papal BFF in history: Rabbi Skorka.
Rumors in the Israeli media hold that Skorka serves as more than just a papal sounding board, as an informal messenger between the Holy See and the Israeli and Palestinian governments.
Skorka refuses to comment on the reports, and speaks of his friend — "a very sensitive man; a man whose life was offered to the cause of the church unrelated to his election" — in cautious, protective cadences.
"Beyond the emotion I feel at being here," he said, "what I feel is a great responsibility to help in whatever way I may be able to ensure that my friend's vision and mission here triumphs."
Helping a “vision” or “mission” to “triumph” might sound to some like language more suited to a discussion of a statesman than a religious leader. Does it hint at further movement from Pope Francis in this direction? Asked about that interpretation, Skorka replied, "They can see it as they wish."
"Every single step in the pope's visit to the Holy Land is political," a Vatican insider in Israel as part of the visit told Globalpost. "We are aware of that."
Skorka defined his personal mission with the pope as one "working for the success of the pope and the State of Israel."
All eyes were riveted when the pope, seeing Skorka and another Buenos Aires friend — Omar Abboud, a Muslim leader from Argentina — at Jerusalem's Western Wall, abandoned all formality and strongly embraced the two men.
This improbable turn of events has made the previously unknown Skorka, the director of Buenos Aires' Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, a rabbinic school, into something of a celeb. Pope-watchers ask for his autograph on the streets of New York, Jerusalemites stop him for selfies, and L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's venerable daily, publishes his thoughts on matters no less Catholic that the pope's impending pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Vatican Radio has him about "On Heaven and Earth," the small meditation on faith and reason that he and then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio published in 2010 — which, incidentally, has become a New York Times bestseller.
It is unlikely that any Jew in history has ever been so closely scrutinized in relation to a pope.
But Francis is an unlikely pontiff: the first non-European pope since Gregory III, the son of a Syrian who was elected in the year 731, and the first pope from the Americas.
"My aim is to be able to help a beloved friend," Skorka said, before, again, swiveling to an unmistakably political angle. "I am here to help him build a path to peace, and leave behind him, when he leaves, a significant imprint in the direction of peace."
That, he says, will indicate that the pope's visit was a success.
In a later conversation, Skorka pointed to Francis' Bethlehem exhortation to Palestinian children as the most important message of the visit: Remember the past, but think of the future.