Dear Jewish brothers, please feel at home, because that's the way Christians want it, despite these signs of intolerance. Your presence here doesn't desecrate a temple of God. We will continue in peace this encounter that Pope Francis always promoted, valued and appreciated so much. —Buenos Aires Archbishop Mario Poli
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Ultra-traditionalist Catholics have openly challenged Pope Francis by disrupting one of his favorite events, a ceremony that he and Jewish leaders led in the Metropolitan Cathedral each year to promote religious harmony on the anniversary of the beginning of the Holocaust.
The annual ceremony brings together Catholics, Jews and Protestants to mark Kristallnacht, the Nazi-led mob violence in 1938 when about 1,000 Jewish synagogues were burned and thousands of Jews were forced into concentration camps, launching the genocide that killed 6 million Jews.
A small group disrupted Tuesday night's ceremony by shouting the rosary and the "Our Father" prayer, and spreading pamphlets saying "followers of false gods must be kept out of the sacred temple."
Buenos Aires Archbishop Mario Poli, named by Francis to replace him as Argentina's top church official, appealed for calm as others in the audience rose up to repudiate them, and the protesters were soon escorted out by police.
"Let there be peace. Shalom," Poli then said, urging everyone to take their seats for a ceremony that was also led by Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a close friend of the pope who co-wrote a book of dialogue seeking common ground between Judaism and Catholicism.
"Dear Jewish brothers, please feel at home, because that's the way Christians want it, despite these signs of intolerance," Poli said. "Your presence here doesn't desecrate a temple of God. We will continue in peace this encounter that Pope Francis always promoted, valued and appreciated so much."
The Rev. Christian Bouchacourt, the South America leader of the Society of Saint Pius X, said Wednesday that the protesters belong to his organization and that they have a right to feel outraged when rabbis preside over a ceremony in a cathedral. "I recognize the authority of the pope, but he is not infallible and in this case, does things we cannot accept," Bouchacourt said in an interview with Radio La Red.
"This wasn't a desire to make a rebellion, but to show our love to the Catholic Church, which was made for the Catholic faith," Bouchacourt added. "A Mass isn't celebrated in a synagogue, nor in a mosque. The Muslims don't accept it. In the same way, we who are Catholics cannot accept the presence of another faith in our church."
The Vatican spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment emailed by The Associated Press.
The Society of St. Pius X has no legal standing in the Catholic Church. It's a schismatic group of traditionalist Catholics who are attached to Latin Mass and follow the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who founded the Swiss-based society in 1969 in opposition to the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The Vatican II meetings made a point of reaching out to Jews and people of other faiths.
Pope Benedict made reconciling with the society a priority, but Pope Francis has made clear he has little interest in courting the traditionalists. Francis has disparaged "restorationist" groups as being out of touch with today's Catholic Church, and his decades-long friendships with Argentine Jews is a testament that he is fully a pope of the Vatican II church.
The same society was in the news in October when one of its Italian priests offered to celebrate the funeral of Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke after the Rome archdiocese refused to allow him a church funeral. The society's funeral service was later called off at the last minute because protesters and Priebke's supporters clashed outside.
Priebke had lived in Argentina, unnoticed, for nearly 50 years after the war until he was exposed as being a Nazi SS captain by an American TV station. He was deported to Italy in 1995 to stand trial for one of the worst atrocities of the German occupation, the massacre of 335 civilians outside Rome, and was serving a life sentence under house arrest when he died in Rome at age 100.
Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this story.