Pope Francis, the Holy See and global humanitarian crises

By Christopher Lamb | Correspondent
October 11, 2017

Pope Francis wears a yellow ID bracelet as he visits a migrant reception center during a pastoral visit in Bologna, Italy, Oct. 1. The bracelet has the pope’s name and a number, just like the immigrants and refugees at the center. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — The church, it is often said, thinks in centuries. This means there is a culture inside the Vatican that takes the long view, carefully assessing and responding to what is going on in the world rather than offering knee-jerk reactions. It is a prudent, and well-tested approach. 

The downside is this sometimes leaves the church playing catch-up on world events.

But Pope Francis has shown this doesn’t have to be the case. 

On a whole range of issues, the 80-year-old Argentine pontiff has managed to get ahead of the curve on major humanitarian crises, allowing the papacy to take on a prophetic voice. 

Take the issue of migrants. It was Francis who powerfully brought the world’s attention to the tragedy of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean while traveling in makeshift rafts from North Africa to Italy. He did so by visiting and saying Mass in Lampedusa, a small island in southern Italy where many of the boats were arriving.  

He has continued to keep the issue on the agenda by bringing 12 Muslim refugees from the Greek Island of Lesbos back to Rome with him on the papal plane, while opening the Vatican’s doors to those fleeing countries gripped by war. 

The same can be said for the Rohingya, a Muslim group being persecuted and driven out of Burma in what the United Nations has described as ethnic cleansing. 

It is a crisis that is threatening to damage the credibility of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the de facto leader of Burma, now known as Myanmar. She has yet to speak out against the Rohingya atrocities. 

Although he is freer to do so, Pope Francis first raised the plight of the Rohingya in February of this year, well before it started to get the attention of the Western media. Next month he will travel to Myanmar where he will shine even more light on the problem. 

Becoming more proactive, and less reactive, with respect to world events is how Francis wants the papacy to be. A church on the margins, one that is alert to human suffering, should also be on its front foot when it comes to speaking out against injustices.  

On the world stage, the Holy See is also becoming far more engaged, and has stepped up its involvement in the United Nations. 

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister equivalent, has recently returned to Rome after attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York, which also included a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. 

While in New York, Archbishop Gallagher signed and ratified a treaty prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons, making the Holy See one of the first sovereign entities to put its name to the agreement. Back in July, the Holy See cast its first ever U.N. vote in favor of the nuclear disarmament treaty; the Holy See only has observer status at the U.N., but on this occasion it was granted full member rights to vote. 

“We must commit ourselves to a world without nuclear weapons,” the pope wrote back in March to the gathering that negotiated the treaty. 

This, and the Holy See’s U.N. vote, marks a shift in the church’s position on nuclear weapons. In 1982, St. John Paul II told the U.N. that having nuclear weapons was “morally acceptable” only for the purposes of deterrence as a step toward full disarmament. The signing of the treaty goes a step further. 

One of the ways that Francis — and any pope — stays attuned to world events is through the Holy See’s wide network of ambassadors who are stationed around the world. While its work often goes under the radar, the Vatican has relations with 183 countries and often remains in dangerous places long after other ambassadors have left. 

In Syria, the apostolic nuncio, Cardinal Mario Zenari, is still in Damascus, with the pope taking the unusual step of naming him a cardinal as a sign of his closeness to the war-torn country. The foreign mission of the Holy See, however, has scant resources and is made up of just 300 diplomats. By comparison, the United States, the only country with more missions than the Holy See, has 13,000 foreign-service employees. 

By tapping into the prophetic part of the papacy, Francis is following in the footsteps of Pope John XXIII, who in 1963 wrote the encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” which called for nuclear disarmament and an end to war.  

It was also John XXIII who called the Second Vatican Council, which provides much of the foundation for Francis’ reforms. The 1962-1965 council was itself prophetic, taking place just before some of the great social upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s while setting a blueprint for the church in the contemporary era.  


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