Summer has Francis focusing on conflict in Latin America

By Christopher Lamb | Chicago Catholic
August 8, 2017

Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican June 28. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Like the rest of southern Europe, Rome is undergoing an intense heatwave with temperatures rising to a baking 104 degrees driving most city residents to the beach or north to cooler climes. Not Pope Francis.

Despite the sweltering heat the pope has stayed put in the Vatican, taking solace in the air conditioning of his home and guest house, the Casa Santa Marta. 

This summer Francis is on a “staycation” with a reduced public schedule, giving him more time for reading, listening to music, praying and waking up later than 4:45 a.m., the normal time his alarm clock goes off. It is also the first time in four years that the pope has made a serious attempt at slowing down, despite his closest advisers repeatedly urging him to take a proper break. 

The 80-year-old pontiff refuses, however, to leave the Vatican for a holiday, explaining that the last time he went away for some time off was in 1975. He has informed aides that becoming pope won’t change this habit.  

“My family was not rich. I am not used to taking vacations,” Francis has said, explaining that during his summer holidays growing up in Argentina he worked in a sock factory and later in a chemistry laboratory. 

The pope’s holiday arrangements are also in keeping with his attempts to stay close to the poor and marginalized: as Rome sweltered in the midday sun last Sunday, Francis used his traditional angelus address to remember those prevented from holidays due to age, health, work commitments and economic constraints. This concern is also seen in the decision by the Vatican to shut off fountains across the city in solidarity with those suffering from water shortages caused by a long drought that has affected much of Italy this year. The lack of rainfall has forced the city of Rome to consider water rationing. 

Francis’ decision to stay in the Vatican means that the glorious papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo is now a museum and a tourist destination where visitors can, for example, see the bed on which Pius XII and Paul VI died. 

A 40-minute drive southeast of central Rome, it is surrounded by expansive gardens and overlooks Lake Albano. During the summer months the pope would say the Angelus overlooking the small, picturesque piazza. Local residents running shops and restaurants were appreciative as they benefited from the increase in tourism during July and August.  

Benedict XVI was especially fond of this retreat, regularly spending more than two months a year there, while John Paul II added a swimming pool to the residence so he could relax and take exercise. 

But the slower summer schedule doesn’t mean the pope is switching off from world events. Take the crisis in Venezuela, where the Holy See has an important role in trying to find some stability for the country gripped by political and economic tensions largely caused by a decrease in oil revenues. There have been widespread protests across Venezuela. Recently there was a small, unsuccessful, military rebellion against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

The pope and the Vatican have been asked to help mediate the crisis, something the church has done several times in Latin America over the years. Rather than simply try to negotiate between two sides, the Holy See now sees its role as trying to “accompany” Venezuela to a more settled political situation.    

But it is a delicate balancing act. Last week the Vatican, which usually tries to steer clear of internal politics, issued a strongly worded statement calling for the government of President Maduro to suspend his recently formed “constituent assembly,” comprising mainly his supporters and designed to rewrite the country’s constitution. 

This was in line with the Venezuelan bishops’ condemnation, which is important, given that President Maduro has sought to exploit perceived divisions between the pope and the local hierarchy. Being involved in the Venezuela crisis echoes Francis’ desire for a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty” because it is on the streets rather than “unhealthy from being confined.”

This is a pope who seeks out the conflict zones, and the summer period has been spent preparing for his visit to Colombia, where he helped to encourage the country’s government and FARC rebels to end their long-running civil war. He is now making good on a promise he made in 2016 to visit if a peace deal was made. 

Francis is also looking ahead to a trip to Bangladesh and Myanmar, which is expected to take place at the end of November. Myanmar, formerly Burma, became the 183rd state to establish formal diplomatic ties with the Holy See earlier this year, after its de facto leader and Nobel peace prize winner, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, met the pope in May. A papal visit to Myanmar is likely to focus on healing inter-religious tensions, with the pope speaking out strongly against mistreatment of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.


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