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Fort Myers resident and rabbi honored with Papal Knighthood; Cited for fostering understanding

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Saint Leo University’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies
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Special to WGCU
Rabbi A. James Rudin

A Fort Myers resident who has spent much of his life helping to develop respect and understanding among different faiths will receive one of the highest honors conferred by the Catholic Church.

Rabbi A. James Rudin will be the third American rabbi to be honored with the Papal Knighthood of the Order of St. Gregory the Great — and the first person of the Jewish faith to be granted that honor by Pope Francis.

"Its really a highlight of both my professional and personal lives," Rudin said. "And it really caps almost over 50 years of work in the field of Christian-Jewish relations. And it's a great, great honor... to be designated by Pope Francis for this award ... honorary knighthood."

Rudin will be conferred the Papal Knighthood at 1 p.m., November 20, by the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston Mark O’Connell at the university's campus, north of Tampa.

“For more than 50 years, Rabbi A. James Rudin has worked to advance Catholic-Jewish relations, and interfaith relations on a wider scale, with extraordinary skill, dedication, and success,” Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, OFM, of the Archdiocese of Boston, said. “The Catholic Church was particularly blessed by Rabbi Rudin’s many years of close working relationships with Cardinal John O’Connor in New York and Pope Saint John Paul II. We are all blessed by Rabbi Rudin’s achievements in promoting dialogue and collaboration among communities of different faiths. The impact of this work continues to grow as successive generations build on the foundation Rabbi Rudin has established.

Rudin, co-founder of Saint Leo University’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies, is being recognized by Pope Francis for his decades of work in building positive Catholic-Jewish relations throughout the world, fostering interreligious dialogue and understanding. Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, having previously served as its Interreligious Affairs director.

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St. Leo University
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Special to WGCU
Saint Leo University is one of the largest Catholic universities in the nation, offering 62 degree programs to more than 15,800 students each year. Founded in 1889 by Benedictine monks and sisters, the school is a private, nonprofit university.

He also is a distinguished professor of religion and Judaica at Saint Leo University, in addition to establishing the university’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies. Saint Leo University is one of the largest Catholic universities in the nation, offering 62 degree programs to more than 15,800 students each year. Founded in 1889 by Benedictine monks and sisters, the school is a private, nonprofit university.

"This is something this is something that I came as a surprise to me," Rudin said. "And I'm really quite honored to receive it."

The papal knighthood was created by Pope Gregory XVI (1745-1846) in 1831, and named in honor of St. Gregory the Great, who died in 604, and whose writings greatly influenced the Church.

The Papal Knighthood is the highest honor the pope bestows upon individuals, both Catholics and non-Catholics, in recognition of their significant contributions to society.

Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, director of United Nations Relations and Strategic Partnerships for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has worked with Rudin in the field of interfaith relations for more than 25 years. He noted that the papal honor, “comes at a crucial time when Jews are under assault around the world, and this knighthood clearly demonstrates the evolving positive relations between Catholics and Jews. Rabbi Rudin well deserves this historic, international honor."

Rudin said increasing incidents of religious bigotry are part and parcel to the social pathology of antisemitism, which he called the world's oldest social pathology.

"It's a social cancer. And like cancer it can be lethal," Rudin said. "People have, millions have died because of antisemitism and the object is to eradicate it, to stem it, to put it in remission, to use my cancer analogy.

Rudin said that thoughts of the curtailing of such sentiments after World War II, that antisemitism was under control and no longer a threat to human society, were in error.

"We have discovered in recent years that unfortunately, here in the United States, and in Europe and in other parts of the world, it has again reappeared," he said, adding that this is why Jewish relations and interreligious relations are so important.

"Because much of the source ... of antisemitism comes from religious sources and that has to be eradicated just as you try to eradicate cancer cells in a human being," he said.

Rudin is a prominent author and public speaker, and an international leader in interreligious relations. He was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Alexandria, Va. He attended Wesleyan University and graduated from George Washington University with academic distinction. Rudin received his rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and served as a U.S. Air Force chaplain in Japan and Korea.

“We give thanks for the many contributions Rabbi Rudin has made to deepening ties of friendship between Jews and Catholics. It is our hope and prayer that the example of his dedication to dialogue will help to bring Catholics and Jews across the nation even closer together."
Statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

His most recent book, a memoir published earlier this year, The People in the Room: Rabbis, Nuns, Pastors, Popes, and Presidents, tells of his travels and meetings with leaders as well as community members throughout the world.

He was a member of the Camp David Presidential Retreat Chapel Committee and co-founded the National Interreligious Task Forces on Soviet Jewry and Black-Jewish Relations. Rudin met many times with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and was the guest of honor at the 1994 Vatican event commemorating the Holocaust.

"The Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rejoices that Pope Francis will confer upon Rabbi A. James Rudin the Papal Knighthood of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great,” reads a statement from the USCCB. “We give thanks for the many contributions Rabbi Rudin has made to deepening ties of friendship between Jews and Catholics. It is our hope and prayer that the example of his dedication to dialogue will help to bring Catholics and Jews across the nation even closer together."

The importance of that interchange of ideas prompted the formation of Saint Leo University’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies in 1998. Rudin said he first heard of the then-Saint Leo College in the 1970s when his wife, Marcia’s, stepmother, Dr. Barbara Kaplan, taught music at the college. “She said Saint Leo was a fine small college,” Rudin said of the university that now is one of the largest Catholic universities in the country. “She and my father-in-law, Dr. Max Kaplan, lived in Tampa, and she commuted to the campus. Fast forward to 1998 when I noted that Florida had an increasing population of Jews and Catholics, and that dynamic demographic trend was likely to continue. There was no Christian-Jewish academic center south of Baltimore at that time.”

Rudin met with the then-college president Arthur Kirk Jr., who liked the rabbi’s proposal of creating an interreligious center on campus. Kirk, Rudin, and Bruce M. Ramer, then-president of the American Jewish Committee, signed a joint statement establishing CCJS.

As the college grew and became a university, the late Bishop Emeritus John J. Nevins of the Catholic Diocese of Venice (FL); and now Bishop Emeritus Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg (FL) became co-founders of CCJS. These leaders recognized the need in the state for an academic center devoted to the biblical and theological study of Catholic-Jewish relations and interreligious dialogue, as emphasized by the Second Vatican Council.

The CCJS is an academic center for the study of Catholic-Jewish relations. While it started as a stand-alone, lay-driven- and financed project at Saint Leo, it became fully integrated into the university in 2013 and will celebrate its silver anniversary—25 years—in 2023, Rudin said.

About the event

The public is invited to the event, which will be followed by a dessert reception at 2 p.m. in the university’s Wellness Center, 33701 State Road 52, St. Leo, Fl., 33574.

Reservations are required with an RSVP for the investiture ceremony here (https://calendar.saintleo.edu/event/6325-honoring-rabbi-a-james-rudin-with-the-papal). Parties of six or more should contact Dr. Matthew Tapie, director of Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies, at matthew.tapie@saintleo.edu.

The ceremony also will be available via livestream at https://www.saintleo.edu/papal-knighthood.