Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, conferred a papal knighthood on Rabbi Arthur Schneier on Monday, citing “the good works that he’s done” to promote religious freedom and international peace.
Rabbi Schneier, 85, is the senior rabbi of Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which was chosen as the first Jewish place of worship in the United States to be visited by a Roman Catholic pontiff when Pope Benedict XVI came to New York in 2008. Rabbi Schneier, a Holocaust survivor, has had private audiences with Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, and welcomed Pope Francis to the Western Wall in Jerusalem last year.
And, as was noted at a ceremony at the residence of the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations, Rabbi Schneier has been a presence at conferences in world trouble spots to promote tolerance and resolve ethnic and religious conflicts. He founded the interfaith Appeal of Conscience Foundation in 1965.
“You know this award to our beloved Rabbi Schneier comes from Pope Francis,” Cardinal Dolan said before pinning a Knight’s Cross on the rabbi. “It’s Pope Francis’s very touching, very tender way of confirming him in the good works that he’s done on behalf of religious freedom, international peace and justice.”
A crowd of dignitaries looked on. Among them were former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger; former Mayor David N. Dinkins; United States Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat of New York; and Raymond W. Kelly, the former police commissioner.
Several religious leaders and officials also attended the ceremony, including Archbishop Demetrios, the spiritual leader of Greek Orthodox Christians of America; Archbishop Khajag Barsamian of the Armenian Church of America; Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood; Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis; Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League; and Rabbi Michael Miller, the executive vice president and chief executive of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Rabbi Schneier’ s son, Rabbi Marc Schneier, also attended.
Rocco Palmo, who follows the church hierarchy for the Catholic news blog Whispers in the Loggia, said that papal knighthoods were “rarely granted” and that it was unusual for a non-Catholic to receive such a title. “Overwhelmingly, it’s to Catholics,” he said. “Ninety-nine-point-seven percent of these go to Catholics, but there have been cases in the last 25 years dating to the pontificate of John Paul II, who made better relations with Jews a priority, that Jews who have been supportive of the church’s work have been recommended for and received papal knighthoods.”
Respect between Catholics and Jews has increased in the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. Rabbi Schneier called the document that reoriented the Catholic approach to Jews Nostra Aetate (In Our Age) a turning point in Catholic-Jewish relations.
Rabbi Schneier took note of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. “Sadly,” he said, “the hope for a new world order of peace has not materialized. We face once again a volatile world in conflict, with radical extremists having hijacked religion to legitimize their barbarism inflicted on religious minorities, particularly Christian minorities.”
Rabbi Schneier was named a papal knight of St. Sylvester, the oldest Catholic order of knighthood. Archbishop Bernardito C. Auza, the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations, said papal knighthood was originally conferred on lay Roman Catholics, “but it came to be conferred on non-Catholics” as well. He added that Pope Pius X had broadened the eligibility in 1905 to include “worthy personalities not only of the church but of the society.” He said past recipients of papal knighthood had included William J. Donovan, director of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. The archbishop said Pope John Paul II had conferred knighthood on Bob Hope, Roy E. Disney and Rupert Murdoch.
Archbishop Auza said the title came with a formal, ornate uniform and a sword, but neither was presented at the ceremony. “We don’t have the uniform ready because we didn’t have the measurements of Rabbi Schneier,” Archbishop Auza said. Rabbi Schneier said he had a problem with the notion of a sword. “I am for gun control, and sword control,”he said. “I’m for peace, not for swords, so what do I do?” Cardinal Dolan replied, “Beat it into a plowshare.”