Francis in Africa: conquering conflict with the medicine of mercy

POPE AFRICA[Dominic Burbidge] Pope Francis begins tomorrow a five-day, three-nation trip to east and central Africa, the first time a pope has set foot in an active war zone.

Francis’ journey (full itinerary here) will cover the three countries of Kenya, Uganda and — assuming it is safe to do so — the Central African Republic (CAR), which is currently suffering ongoing conflict between rival militant groups.

“Your dear country has for too long been affected by a violent situation and by insecurity of which many of you have been innocent victims,” the Pope said in a video message to the people of CAR, recorded in French. “The goal of my visit is, above all, to bring you, in the name of Christ, the comfort of consolation and hope,” he said, adding: “I hope with all my heart that my visit may contribute, in one way or another, to alleviate your wounds and to favor conditions for a better, more serene future for Central Africa and all its inhabitants.”

e0f01791-0f36-4a73-9420-678f311996f9In fact, all three countries have suffered enormously from conflict and religious divisions. The pope comes, said the Vatican spokesman last week, as “a messenger of peace and reconciliation”. His aim is to counter religious conflict with a message of mercy, showing the Pope’s closeness to the victims of violence and giving a powerful message of inter-religious understanding based on a common commitment to peace.

This is the Pope’s first trip to Africa but all three countries have been visited by popes before — the first was Uganda, by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1969. Francis will set foot in Kenya first, on Wednesday and Thursday, before moving on to Uganda on Friday and Saturday. His last stop will be the CAR, on Sunday and Monday.

Africa is the fastest growing region for Catholicism anywhere in the world: During the 20th century, the Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa went from 1.9m to more than 130m — a staggering expansion rate of over 6,000 per cent. Already Africans account for a fifth of the world’s Catholics, and that percentage is increasing rapidly: there are expected to be 460m Catholics by 2040.

At the same time, religious divides in the continent are linked to war, violence and poverty. Kenya and the CAR have hit international news with increased frequency, problematizing this image of the growing importance of religion for people’s lives.

Highlights of the trip

Fr Lombardi has drawn attention to a number of key moments in the trip:

  • In Kenya: the Pope’s address on Laudato Si’ to the United Nations Environment Programme, which has its headquarters in the capital, Nairobi.  Also his visit to Nairobi’s Kangemi neighborhood, where he will give a speech similar to those he gave to the world meeting popular movements first in the Vatican in 2014 and then in July in Santa Cruz in Bolivia (see CV Comment here).
  • In Uganda: the Mass for the Martyrs of Namugongo (mostly known as ‘the Ugandan martyrs’) on Saturday. (“We know how important the theme of martyrdom is to the Pope”, Fr Lombardi told journalists. “We saw this especially in Korea, and we’ll see it again in Uganda.”)
  • In the CAR, Pope Francis will show his concern for the people and commitment to peace by visiting a Catholic parish sheltering more than 2,000 refugees. “We know that Pope Francis’s objective in visiting the Central African Republic is to manifest his closeness to the people suffering as a result of conflict and tensions,” Fr Lombardi said, who added that the visit to the refugee camp will be the first thing he does in the country after meeting the authorities. Also significant will be the visit to Bangui’s mosque for a meeting with the country’s Muslims.

The Pope’s bold move

Rebel militia in CAR

Rebel militia in CAR

CAR’s most recent troubles began in late 2012 when several bands of mainly Muslim rebel groups formed the Séléka alliance. Moving south from their northern stronghold, they seized power from then-president François Bozizé in 2013. But they have since been beaten back by mostly Christian militias calling themselves the Anti-Balaka. The violence has led to some 6,000 dead and a quarter of the population — over a million people — being displaced. The former French colony is currently operated by a transitional authority in anticipation of December elections.

In an attempt to improve security for the Pope’s visit to the CAR’s capital, Bangui, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon has asked the UN Security Council to redeploy 300 additional peacekeepers from a mission in Ivory Coast, a request which Britain says the Council backs. This follows warnings from French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that it will be difficult to ensure the Pope’s safety beyond the airport.

“The pope wants to go to the Central African Republic,” said Fr Lombardi last Thursday. “The plan continues to be to go to the Central African Republic. We are all working in that direction. And, like any wise person would do, we are monitoring the situation.”

France’s 900 soldiers in the country will secure the airport and provide medical evacuation if necessary, but “cannot do more,” in the words of an official close to the French Defence Minister.

The ‘three saints of Bangui’: Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Council; Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the Evangelical Alliance; Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Council; and Archbishop Diedonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference


Pope Francis’s bold move is in response to a 2014 visit to the Vatican by an imam, an evangelical pastor and a Catholic archbishop. The three religious leaders from the CAR —  dubbed “the three saints of Bangui” by Le Monde — impressed on the pope that the ongoing conflict in the CAR has been wrongly portrayed as a religious conflict between Muslims and Christians, and that the country is in urgent need of international support.

Time magazine named the religious leaders among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014, and the United Nations awarded them the 2015 Sergio Vieira de Mello Prize for peace. By accepting their invitation, Francis is giving the greatest possible support for one of the greatest examples of inter-religious action for peace.

In the CAR’s Cathedral Notre-Dame, Pope Francis will open the cathedral doors as a rite to begin the Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy. In the morning following the opening of the cathedral doors, the pope will visit the Central Mosque of the Bangui, which is in a particularly unstable part of the city. The theme of mercy — which is central to Islam’s understanding of Allah — is what binds these two moments.

RC Other Xn Muslim Other
Kenya 23% 59% 11% 7%
Uganda 42% 42% 12% 4%
Central African Republic (CAR) 25% 25% 15% 35%

Source: CIA Factbook


In Kenya, the pope will say Mass in the campus of the University of Nairobi, an institution that has been the site of political protests over the course of Kenya’s history following unlawful detentions of political dissidents. As a nationally-renowned epicentre of Kenya’s ethnic diversity, the University represents the country’s hopes and dreams.

Thursday’s Mass is expected to attract 1.4 million people, some 3 percent of the country’s population. Afterwards, the pope will speak at the United Nations headquarters in Africa on climate change. As this speech comes on the eve of the meeting of the major countries of the world in Paris, known as “COP21“, Pope Francis is likely to make a powerful call to urgent action.

wo-pope-africa23nw1Nairobi’s Kangemi slum, where Francis will give his ‘popular movements’ speech, is on the outskirts of the city and is thought to be occupied by over 100,000 people without access to clean water or a sewage system. Women from the slum’s Dolly Craft Center are sewing three vestments which the pope will choose from for the Mass, two of which have African cultural themes.

In 2010, Al-Shabaab suicide bombers in Kampala, Uganda, killed 74 people watching the World Cup final. Since then, numerous catastrophic attacks by Al-Shabaab have hit Kenya, most notably the killing of 67 people in the Westgate shopping centre (Sep 2013) and the killing of 147 students in Garissa University College (Apr 2015). At the same time, citizens of Kenya have been extremely critical of international media framing the country as overwhelmed by terrorism, with particular anger directed at CNN’s description of the country as a “hotbed of terror”.

It would be surprising if, in the wake of the Paris attacks and against this background, Pope Francis does not address the theme of jihadist violence as a betrayal of all that religion holds dear.


UgandaTo the north-east of the capital, Francis will visit Namugongo, where he will visit first the Anglican then Catholic shrines dedicated to the Ugandans martyred between 1885 and 1887. The 23 Anglicans and 22 Catholics were burnt to death by the King of Buganda as part of a religious persecution, possibly because of their refusal to entertain sexual promiscuity. As a religious site of global recognition, the location is a perfect vehicle for the Pope’s message of unity through solidarity between world religions.

In his pre-visit video message to Kenya and Uganda recorded by the Pope in English, Francis said: “We are living at a time when religious believers, and persons of good will everywhere, are called to foster mutual understanding and respect, and to support each other as members of our one human family, for all of us are God’s children.”

That afternoon, Pope Francis will visit the House of Charity in Nalukolongo, where Good Samaritan sisters care for elderly residents. It is one of 288 health institutions run by the Catholic Church in Uganda.


Because of fears over violence, the pope’s final stop in Bangui is likely to send the largest shockwaves. Transitional president of the CAR, Catherine Samba Panza, said she hopes Pope Francis will come despite these concerns, and the Vatican has confirmed  he will.

One of the striking stories likely to emerge over the course of these events is the backwards travelling to the CAR by hundreds of thousands of Africans from neighbouring Congo and Cameroon in order to catch a glimpse of the Pope.

Before Mass at the cathedral and symbolically opening the doors of the Church to begin the Year of Mercy, the Pope will visit a refugee camp — an opportunity to address a refugee crisis that is now global.

[Dr Dominic Burbidge is Departmental Lecturer in African Studies at the University of Oxford, and a Catholic Voice. He has spent long periods of his career living in East Africa, and speaks Swahili.]

Posted in Africa, mercy, migration/refugees, Pope Francis

English & Welsh bishops call for UK to open doors to refugees

cardinal-vincent-nichols plenary[Austen Ivereigh] Describing Britain’s response to the refugee crisis as a test of its moral identity and culture, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have called for “a generous response” to taking newcomers that goes well beyond the Government’s current commitments.

Speaking at the end of their plenary meeting in Leeds, the bishops said the vast numbers of displaced people in refugee camps throughout the world “are our brothers and sisters” who “command our moral concern” and who should be assisted on the basis of what they need rather than who they are.

“The barbarous attacks in Paris last week should not deter us from caring for those in need,” the bishops said in their statement.

The UK Government has pledged to take 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 but that is “too few,” the bishops’ conference president, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, told journalists last Friday, adding that there was a “readiness” to accept many more, and that “every extension” of the Government’s program would be welcome.

“On our part and on the Church of England’s part, concrete offers are on the table,” he said.

safe_image.phpAn estimated 9m Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, taking refuge in neighboring countries or within Syria itself. More than 3m have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, while 6.5m are internally displaced within Syria. Close to 150,000 Syrians have declared asylum in the European Union, while member states have pledged to resettle a further 33,000, mostly in Germany. France is taking 24,000 refugees over the next two years.

Against discrimination

Cardinal Nichols criticized calls for the screening of Muslim immigrants by US Republican  Party candidate Donald Trump. “Most refugees are victims of violence, not perpetrators,” he said, and while vigilance was needed it was wrong to discriminate against any refugee on the basis of their religion. He added: “We should not cast the mischief made by a tiny number of people across the shoulders of people who are desperate and themselves victims of terrible violence.”

refugees-hungary-p_3432984kBut he pointed out that the Government’s program to accept and resettle Syrian refugees unintentionally excluded Christian refugees. Refugees were taken from camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whereas Christian refugees are accommodated outside those camps.

“I quite understand how the Government has got itself into this position, and it can’t discriminate on the basis of religion,” the cardinal said. “But an accidental consequence might be that very few Christian families are being given that opportunity.”

The bishops also call on the Governments of England and Wales to recognize integration initiatives that allow refugees to work and contribute to wider society, and say the Catholic community offers “encouragement and example” through its many projects. “Effective resettlement goes far beyond simply allowing people to reside here,” the bishops say.

The bishops heard from each other about Church-based initiatives to support refugees or ecumenical projects supported by Catholics. Cardinal Nichols said a number of bishops had been traveling in order to understand some of the causes of the migration flows.

“The world is in a very troubled state at the moment, and it’s important that the depth of this compassion and practical help are well understood in our responses,” he said.

Annulment reform

Among the other issues the bishops deliberated on last week were the recent synod of bishops, the Year of Mercy, and the encyclical Laudato Si‘.

On the synod, the bishops spent time discussing “pathways of accompaniment” for divorced and remarried wanting to be integrated into parish life while hearing from canon lawyers about the implications of Pope Francis’s new rules for speeding and streamlining the process of ruling on marriage nullity, allowing bishops to act as judges where the facts are not disputed.

synodCardinal Nichols said he had been astonished to learn that only 80 dioceses in the world had functioning tribunals. “I think most of ours work fairly well, so the urgency of need is not necessarily here,” he said. “The most significant thing for us is the removal of the necessity to have a second review of a decision, and that will help a great deal.”

Cardinal Nichols said it was also helpful that people could now apply to tribunals in the place where they lived rather than where they got married.

Year of Mercy podcasts

The bishops shared information on the initiatives each was taking in response to the Year of Mercy, which opens on 8 December. Cardinal Nichols said there had been “a lot of focus on the Sacrament of Reconciliation”, which he described as “the crucial meeting place for experiencing what Pope Francis calls ‘the caress of God’s mercy.'”

He said the bishops’ evangelization programs had been fashioned “as a desire to respond to the mercy of God which I have received and therefore the desire to let other people know about that and the desire to share it.”

laudato-siWhile in Leeds, 25 bishops recorded podcasts on the theme of mercy that will be put out daily after 8 December.

Laudato Si’ teaching document

The bishops have agreed to put together resources for exploring and digesting Pope Francis’s encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si’, starting from the final chapter 6. Their resources will complement Cafod’s study guide by going more deeply into the spirituality and theology of what is to be human and to care for creation.

Posted in migration/refugees, Uncategorized

‘Spotlight’: a reminder of what had to change

Spotlight poster[From Christopher White in New York] This month’s US release of the film Spotlight — the UK release will not be until January — is a time for Catholics to recall the devastation that sexual abuse in the Church has caused.

But in telling the story of the Boston Globe’s groundbreaking exposure of the crisis in January 2002, the movie (reviewed by The Guardian here) is also a moment to reflect on the media’s service in exposing the crisis and making clear the need for urgent reform.

Reflecting on the ten-year anniversary of the Globe’s coverage back in 2011, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said that “the media helped make our Church safer for children by raising up the issue of clergy sexual abuse and forcing us to deal with it.”

When the Globe first began its reports — the story was never off its front page for six months — Catholics and non-Catholics alike were rightly outraged at the revelations both of abuse and its cover-up by clergy and bishops whose very institutional mission is to the vulnerable.

Although it was hard to see at the time, the scandal was in a backhanded way a recognition of the significance of the Catholic Church in public life, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in 2010.

Spotlightmovie2In a column in last week’s Washington Post, I made the case that the Church’s response to the Globe’s revelations has made it one the safest institutions for minors today.

I pointed out that Pope Francis has built on the reforms of his predecessor in the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which advises the Holy See on how to strengthen its commitment to safeguarding. The committee is made up of survivors of sexual abuse, psychologists and other experts who are tasked with both pastoral care and maintaining accountability for those in authority (see CV Comment here). This past June, following the Commission’s recommendations, Francis doubled down on reform efforts by establishing a special tribunal explicitly to discipline negligent bishops.

SplotlightaPope Francis knows all too well that the ongoing work of reform will not be aided by mere public relations exercises, but a real change in practice. That’s what motivated him to approve a 2014 investigation of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri for failing to report child abuse. Less than a year later, Finn resigned. Following his June 2015 establishment of tribunal for disciplining delinquent bishops, Archbishop John C. Nienstedt and auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche of Minnesota, both of whom were facing investigation for mishandling abuse cases, resigned.

During his papal visit to the United States in September, Francis offered some of his harshest words about the abuse crisis just moments after speaking with victims of sexual abuse. He told the US bishops in Philadelphia:

I continue to be ashamed that persons charged with the tender care of those little ones abused them and caused them grave harm. I deeply regret this. God weeps. The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors may no longer be kept secret; I commit myself to ensuring that the Church makes every effort to protect minors and I promise that those responsible will be held to account.

Splotlightmovie3While the work of the reform is not yet complete, Francis is moving quickly to fast track internal proceedings and ensure that the Church does not rest until any of its predatory priests are permanently removed from ministry and that better systems are created to prevent them from arriving there in the first place.

Spotlight does not tell the story of what happened after the crisis of 2002: the reform that it triggered, nor the wholesale conversion of an institution’s culture and practices. But it reminds us of what led to it — and those are lessons we cannot stop learning.

[Christopher White is Associate Director of Catholic Voices USA]

Posted in abuse

After Paris: church leaders say now, more than ever, we need mercy

Pour quoi[Austen Ivereigh] As Paris mourned its dead and tried to come to terms with last Friday night’s nightmare, church leaders over the weekend pointed to hope and mercy, urging people not to give into hate and mistrust, while calling for a mobilization of spiritual as well as earthly resources to combat the evil of terrorism.

In a phone call on Saturday a sorrowful Pope Francis told Italian Catholic TV that there could be no human let alone religious justification for the attacks.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “But these things are hard to understand; things done by human beings. That’s why I am deeply moved, and in grief, and I pray … This is not human. That’s why I am close to all the people who suffer and to France, which I love so much.”

He also repeated his idea that such attacks were part of a “piecemeal Third World War” being waged across the world.

Francis movedAt yesterday’s Angelus Pope Francis said it was “blasphemy” to use the name of God to justify “the road of violence and hatred.”

On Saturday Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris called for “moderation, temperance and control” to continue to be shown. “Let no one indulge in panic or hatred,” he said, adding: “We ask that grace be the artisan of peace. We need never despair of peace if we build on justice.”

Yesterday he led an emotion-charged million-strong requiem Mass at Notre Dame cathedral, at which the nuncio read a message of condolence to the people of Paris.

Vingt-TroisIn his homily, Cardinal Vingt-Trois described Friday night’s simultaneous ISIS attacks on a concert hall, stadium and restaurants that left 129 dead and hundreds more gravely injured as one of the most critical moments in Paris’s history.

Describing how men and women were “savagely executed in an anonymous fashion”, he said that the first task of the congregation was to share the pain of their relatives and loved ones and to pray for those still in hospital.

He went on to ask the painful question of how young people educated in France’s schools could be so distressed that the “the violence of the caliphate could come to be a mobilizing ideal”. “The difficulties of social integration are not remotely sufficient to explain this,” he said.

Cardinal Vingt-Trois went on to say that Christians were called to be ” messengers of hope in the heart of human suffering”. Hope, he said, was “an interior strength which allows ordinary men and women to refuse to be cowed, to do heroic things beyond their own strength.” Such strength, he said, was “born of our trust in God, of our ability to rely on Him.”

Cardinal Parolin

Cardinal Parolin

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, told La Croix newspaper that this was the right time to launch what he called “an offensive of mercy”.

He said the Jubilee of Mercy, which begins on 8 December, was the perfect moment to mobilize what he called the “spiritual resources” to provide “a positive response to evil”.

It is understandable that after the attacks there are feelings of revenge but we must fight against this urge. The Pope wants the Jubilee to help people to see eye-to-eye, understand one another, and overcome hatred. After these attacks, this goal is strengthened. We receive the mercy of God to adopt this attitude toward others. The Merciful is also the most beautiful name of God for Muslims, who could be involved in this holy year, as the Holy Father desires.

Praising what he called “a desire in the people to continue life there where the terrorists sought to interrupt and crush it”, he said the challenge demanded “a general mobilization of France, or Europe, of the whole world” that was both military and spiritual.

A mobilization of all means of security, of police forces, and of information, to root out this evil of terrorism. But also a mobilization which would involve all spiritual resources to provide a positive response to evil. That passes through education to the refutation of hatred, giving responses to the young people who leave for jihad. There is a need to convoke all the actors, political and religious, national and international. There is a great need to combat this together. Without this union, this difficult battle will not be won. And it is necessary to involve the Muslim community; they must be part of the solution.

Asked if Pope Francis stood by his words in August 2014 that it was “licit” to use force to stop an unjust aggressor, Cardinal Parolin said: “Yes, because blind violence is intolerable, whatever its origin may be.”

The Pope cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church which says: ‘The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.’ This corresponds to the legitimate defense of a State within its borders to protect its citizens and repel terrorists. In occasion of a foreign intervention, it is necessary to seek out legitimacy through the organizations which the international community has given itself. Our role is to remember these conditions, not to specify means to stop the aggressor.

Faced with calls for the Vatican to cancel or postpone the Jubilee (see, for example, today’s report in The Times) officials in Rome have stressed that now, more than ever, it is needed.

Archbishop Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation

Archbishop Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation

“We need a Holy Year now more than ever,” said Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who is in charge of the organization. “The violence in Paris makes the Holy Year even more important as a time of peace and reflection,” he told Corriere della Sera.

Cardinal Parolin said the Vatican could not give in to fear.

What happened in France shows, in an even more powerful way, that no one is excluded from terrorism. The Vatican could be a target because of its religious significance. We can augment the level of security measures in the Vatican and its surroundings, but they cannot paralyze us with fear. Therefore, nothing will be changed in the Pope’s schedule.

Posted in mercy, Pope Francis

Church Prays for Paris Attack Victims

As the horror unfolded in Paris last night during terror attacks which left at least 128 people dead and 180 injured, the Holy See Press Office issued a statement condemning the violence:

Here in the Vatican we are following the terrible news from Paris. We are shocked by this new manifestation of maddening, terrorist violence and hatred which we condemn in the most radical way together with the Pope and all those who love peace. We pray for the victims and the wounded, and for all the French people. This is an attack on peace for all humanity, and it requires a decisive, supportive response on the part of all of us as we counter the spread the homicidal hatred in all of its forms.

During his morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta the Pope asked for prayer “for the victims of this cruelty,” and “for those who are cruel so that the Lord may change their heart.”


Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, released a message in French this morning calling for peace and solidarity.

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, has also issued three statements. First, a message to the public condemning the attacks and offering prayer:

This random killing of innocent people is utterly despicable and a course of action which must be rejected unequivocally by all … Today I offer my prayers, with those of the entire Catholic Community in England and Wales, for those who have been shot dead as they enjoyed moments of relaxation and entertainment. I pray for the bereaved, for those who have been traumatised. I pray for the City of Paris that it will courageously recover its poise as one of the great cities of the world. I pray for the police and security forces who will continue their frontline fight against this evil madness. I pray, too, for the Muslim communities in France, and here in England, that they may not be victimised because of the actions of these violent and ruthless extremists but strive always for the way of peace and cooperation with the wider society.

The Cardinal also sent a message of condolence to the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois:

On this sad morning I send to you my heartfelt condolences for all who died last night at the hands of terrorists in your city of Paris. I assure you of my prayers at the moment of profound disturbance, fear and disbelief … I know that you will lead the Catholic community with wisdom and love and give that example to all who attend to your voice.

And a message to London’s French Catholic community based at Notre Dame de France, the French church in Leicester Square:

I want to assure you of my thoughts and prayers this morning. I pray for all who have died, for those who have been bereaved and traumatised, for the city of Paris as it wakes to a changed world with new challenges for all who believe in peaceful cooperation and constructive engagement in all spheres of life

You can read the full text of Cardinal Nichols’s messages here.



Posted in Uncategorized

Bishop of Lancaster translates Synod’s final report

Bishop Michael CampbellBishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster, who completed his priesthood studies in Rome, has produced a working translation of the synod’s final report, which can be downloaded in PDF from his diocesan website here.

It is an excellent, accurate rendition, and dependable. It is not, of course, the official Vatican one, which has yet to be released, but the best English version available in the meantime.

Bishop Michael serves on the Department of Christian Life & Worship of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and on the Editorial Committee of the liturgical translation commission ICEL. In October 2012 he represented the Bishops of England & Wales at the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation in Rome.

Posted in Synod2015

Pope in Florence lights a fire under the Italian Church

Speaking in cathedral[Austen Ivereigh] In yet another landmark address in a year of key speeches, Pope Francis in Florence today challenged the Church in Italy to abandon its attachments and embrace the fervor and dynamism of a faith focussed on the frontiers.

In a 50-minute barnstormer in the city’s famous cathedral, known as the Duomo, Pope Francis told a national meeting of Italy’s Catholics not to search for solutions in conservatism and rigidity but to adopt the attitude Jesus portrayed in the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 of humility, service, and an option for the poor.

He spoke on the theme chosen by the Fifth National Convention of the Italian Church, “A new humanism in Jesus Christ”, by meditating on the face of Jesus in the cathedral dome. He said it was “the face of a God who has emptied himself, a God who has assumed the condition of servant — humble and obedient until death.”

Pope_Francis_in_Florence_1_on_Nov_10_2015_Credit_Daniel_Ibanez_CNA_11_10_15“The face of Jesus is similar to that of so many of our humiliated brothers, made slaves, emptied,” he went on. “We will not see anything of his fullness if we do not accept that God has emptied God’s self.”

Unless this was grasped, “we will not understand anything of Christian humanism and our words will be beautiful … but will not be words of faith”.

Reform and change

For the second time in just a few days, the Pope spoke of the importance of ‘reform’, as well as referring to the ‘revolutionary’ nature of faith enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

The 2,500 delegates from all of Italy’s dioceses frequently interrupted to clap, and at the end gave him a prolonged standing ovation that only stopped when he called them to prayer.

He told them the Church was semper reformanda  — always in need of reform — but that reform did not consist in the umpteenth plan to change structures. “It means instead grafting yourself to and rooting yourself in Christ, leaving yourself to be guided by the Spirit — so that all will be possible with genius and creativity.”

Christian doctrine, he said, “is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, queries, but is alive, able to unsettle, animate.” Doctrine, he added, “has a face that isn’t rigid, a body that moves and develops. It has tender flesh: that of Jesus Christ.”

Against worldliness

The Church in Italy, which is both huge and state-subsidised, has many of the problems associated with ‘establishment’ churches: a certain sclerosis, and attachment to power and privilege.

outside DuomoPope Francis offered a series of antidotes to those temptations. He urged bishops to be pastors sustained by their people, who should be focussed on the kerygma in their preaching — the Good News of God’s salvation through Jesus’s Crucifixion and Resurrection –  rather than “complex doctrines”. He urged priests to imitate Don Camilo in the famous stories by Guareschi.

Closeness to the people and prayer are the key to living a Christian humanism that is popular, humble, generous, and joyful. If we lose this contact with the God’s faithful people we lose our humanity and we go nowhere.

He also asked the whole Italian Church to have an option for the poorest, suggesting that the poor have one half of a medal and the Church has the other half. The poor, he said, understand the attitude of Christ because they know the suffering Christ from experience.

While urging the delegates to believe in what he called “the genius of Italian Christianity”, he said, “May God protect the Italian Church from every surrogate of power, image, and money,” adding: “Evangelical  poverty is creative and welcoming, it nurtures, and is filled with hope.”

Two temptations

Specifically, Pope Francis addressed two temptations that threatened to lure the Church away from the Christ of the Beatitudes. One was the heresy of the Pelagians, the other that of the Gnostics. The first is the temptation of conservatives, the other of progressives.

656C9031-15A7-471A-8C4C-8CFA6F61F41AThe Pelagian temptation was to have faith in structures, organizations, perfect planning. It led, he said, to a certain hardness, a desire to control. Pelagianism, he said, trusted clarity over the Holy Spirit. Yet it was useless to seek solutions in “conservatisms and fundamentalisms, in the restoration of obsolete ways of behaving and forms that are no longer capable culturally of meaning.” Church reform, he said, was alien to Pelagianism. He asked the Italian Church to be “free and open to the challenges of the present, never defensive for fear of losing something.”

The Gnostic temptation is to trust in clear reason and logic, lacking in the tenderness of the brother’s flesh. It is the temptation to remain at the level of endless conversation and ideas, “not putting anything into practice, not leading the Word into reality, trying to build on sand, remaining at the level of pure ideas or degenerating into a fruitless intimism that renders its dynamism sterile.”

Against these temptations, Pope Francis suggested a meditation on the living, fleshy Jesus in the Scriptures.

Let us look again at the features of the face of Christ, and his gestures. Let us see Jesus who eats and drinks with sinners (Mk 2:16, Mt 11:19); let us contemplate him as he speaks with the Samaritan woman (Jn 3:1-21); let us chance upon him as he meets Nicodemus after dark (Jn 3:1-21); let us savor with affection that scene in which he allows his feet to be anointed by a prostitute (Lk 7:35-50); let us feel his saliva on the tip of our tongues as he loosens them (Mk 7:33). Let us admire the “goodwill of all the people” that surrounds his disciples — i.e. us — and let us experience their “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46-7)

 Dialogue, encounter

Pope Francis also urged the Italian Church to embrace dialogue, which he meant “to seek the common good for all”. He said they should not fear inevitable disagreement and conflict and but accept and bear it while transforming it into a link to a new process. No true humanism, he said, could exist without love, which was the basis of all dialogue.

“We should never be afraid of dialogue,” he said, adding that criticism “helps us keep theology from becoming ideology.”

Turning to young people, he called on them not to remain on the balcony looking down but to get involved in social and political dialogue. “Wherever you are,” he told them, “never build walls or borders, but public squares and field hospitals.”

The Church the Pope wants

Francis said he liked the idea of an “unsettled” Italian Church, one that was close to the abandoned, the forgotten, and the imperfect. “I want a joyful Church, one that has the face of mamma, who understands, walks with, caresses.”

In Prato

In Prato

He urged the Italian Church to read his Evangelii Gaudium “in a synodal way” — i.e. listening and discussing in parishes and communities — in order to put it into practice.

With Chinese workers in Prato

The day began with Francis travelling to the Tuscan city of Prato, where he told the city’s workers – many of them Chinese immigrants – to fight corruption and indifference, and work toward a culture of inclusion. He said the Lord asked them “not to remain closed in indifference, but to open ourselves”.

Recalling the deaths of Chinese factory workers killed two years ago in a factory fire, the Pope described them as “a tragedy of exploitation and inhuman life conditions.”

“The life of every community demands that we combat the cancer of corruption, the cancer of human and labour exploitation and the poison of illegality,” he added.

With the poor in Florence

After his speech in the cathedral, Pope Francis sat down for lunch with 60 of the poorest inhabitants of Florence at a Caritas centre known as “St Francis the Poor’s Table”. Francis was given a meal voucher when he arrived and ate off a plastic plate, just like everyone else.

After he reached to fill the glasses of the people he was with at table, it was suggested on Twitter that he was “Pope of the Pour”.

Posted in Pope Francis address