By Ann Marie Foley - 09 March, 2016
Britain’s former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, who has twice met the now emeritus Pope Benedict, has been chosen as this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize.
The foundation which awards the prize stated that central to Rabbi Sacks’ message is the appreciation and respect of all faiths and that recognising the values of each is the only path to effectively combat the global rise of violence and terrorism.
Rabbi Sacks welcomed the then Pope Benedict to an interfaith meeting at St Mary’s University College in London in 2010 and was received by Pope Benedict in the Vatican in December 2011.
“Religion, or more precisely, religions, should have a voice in the public conversation within the societies of the West, as to how to live, how to construct a social order, how to enhance human dignity, honour human life, and indeed protect life as a whole,” Rabbi Sacks said at the announcement of the prize.
“Each religion, and each strand within each religion, will have to undertake this work, because if religion is not part of the solution it will assuredly be a large part of the problem as voices become ever more strident, and religious extremists ever more violent.”
Jennifer Simpson, Chair of the John Templeton Foundation Board of Trustees said, “After 9/11, Rabbi Sacks saw the need for a response to the challenge posed by radicalization and extremism and he did so with dignity and grace.”
Rabbi Sacks joins some 45 former recipients, including Mother Teresa, who received the inaugural Prize award in 1973.
Last year’s prize winner was Canadian Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers.
The 2014 laureate was Czech priest and philosopher Tomáš Halík, following Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, and the Dalai Lama.
Rabbi Sacks, who is 67 years of age, has been credited with revitalising Britain’s Jewish community during his service as Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013. This he did at a time of dwindling congregations and growing secularisation across Europe.
During his tenure he was at the centre of organisations that introduced a Jewish focus in areas including business, women’s issues and education, and urged British Jews to turn outward to share the ethics of their faith with the broader community.
When speaking to Vatican Radio after his second meeting with Pope Benedict in December 2011, he said that everyone was amazed at the interest in the Pope during his visit to Britain.
“Everyone saw a gentle, very spiritual, very holy person and that had huge impact. So yes, it is true that religion doesn’t play a part in the political arena but I’m glad about that. We should not aspire to political power. But we are talking to people, especially when they’re thinking what kind of answer do I want to give to the meaning of life and what kind of value system do I want for my children,” he said.
Pope Benedict was interested in knowing about Jewish-Christian relations in Britain.
Rabbi Sacks sees two Jewish attitudes towards the Catholic Church – those who applaud Pope Benedict and John Paul before him for implementing the spirit of *Nostra Aetate; but others who still see the Church only in terms of the possible beatification of Pius XII and a perceived failure to apologise for not speaking out enough against the Holocaust.
“The God of love and forgiveness created humanity in love and forgiveness, and asks of us to love and forgive others. And that is the attitude I bring to Jewish-Christian relations. And I hope it’s the attitude Christians bring to that same relationship,” he said.
“We recognise the extraordinary about-turn that occurred in the Catholic Church at really the inspiration and depth of compassion of Pope John XXIII, which set in motion the process that culminated in Vatican II, the result of which is that Jews and Catholics, having been estranged for many centuries, now meet again today as cherished and respected friends,” he said adding that hope outweighs any anxieties.
The Templeton Prize, valued at €1.4 million, honours a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.
Rabbi Sacks has been married to Elaine Taylor since 1970. They have three children and eight grandchildren.
He will be formally awarded the Templeton Prize at a public ceremony in London on 26 May.
* Nostra aetate – Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council.