The annual gathering of Catholics, Jews and Protestants marks 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. Before he assumed the papacy, Buenos Aires Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio and his good friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka led the ceremony every year.
A small group disrupted Tuesday night's ceremony by shouting the rosary and the "Our Father" prayer, and spreading pamphlets saying that "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 the protesters, who were soon escorted out by police.
"Let there be peace. Shalom," Poli then said, urging everyone to take their seats.
"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.
Skorka, who co-wrote a book of dialogues with Bergoglio seeking common ground between Judaism and Catholicism, described the incident in an interview with Radio 10 on Wednesday.
"The cathedral was full, with people standing, prepared for a profound act of introspection, when a group of about 40 people began to recite from the Christian liturgy, the 'Our Father,' and began to hand out little pieces of paper saying that Jews were blaspheming the place," Skorka said.
Skorka said protesters made cutting comments like "the Jews killed Jesus." He said one Jew confronted them, saying, "My grandmother died in Auschwitz," to which an activist replied, "Do you belive that lie?"
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 said. "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 declined to comment, saying the issue was outside his normal area of jurisdiction.
The Society of St. Pius X is a breakaway group of traditionalist Catholics who are attached to the old 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.
Lefebvre and four of his bishops were excommunicated after he consecrated them without papal consent in a schismatic act. The excommunications were lifted in 2009 but the group still has no legal standing in the church.
Pope Benedict made reconciling with the society a priority, but Pope Francis has made clear he has little interest in courting the traditionalists.
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.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.