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Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 10, 2022
Pope Francis greets George Poulides, the ambassador of Cyprus to the Holy See and dean of the Vatican diplomatic corps, as he arrives for an annual meeting with diplomats accredited to the Holy See, at the Vatican Jan. 10, 2022. In his address, the pope called for an urgent reality check against misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In his New Year’s address to the ambassadors from the 183 countries that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, Pope Francis said, “The issue of migration, together with the pandemic and climate change, has clearly demonstrated that we cannot be saved alone and by ourselves: The great challenges of our time are all global.”

“It is therefore troubling,” he said, “that, alongside the greater interconnection of problems, we are seeing a growing fragmentation of solutions” and not infrequently “encounter an unwillingness to open windows of dialogue and spaces of fraternity.” This “only fuels further tensions and divisions as well as a generalized feeling of uncertainty and instability,” he stated.

In a 30-minute talk, delivered in Italian in the Vatican’s Hall of Benedictions, he also addressed nuclear arms, autonomous weapons, ongoing conflicts in several countries and education.

A crisis of multilateralism

The pope told the ambassadors that “for some time now, multilateral diplomacy has been experiencing a crisis of trust, due to the reduced credibility of social, governmental and intergovernmental systems.”

He noted that often “important resolutions, declarations and decisions” are taken without a genuine process of negotiation and said this has generated “disaffection” toward international agencies on the part of many states and has weakened the multilateral system, thereby rendering it “less and less effective in confronting global challenges.”

He partially attributed the “diminished effectiveness of many international organizations”—alluding to the United Nations and some of its agencies—to “the differing visions of the ends” that member states wish to pursue. Although the pope did not name specific cases, one he may have had in mind was when, in 2020, the U.N. Commission on Population and Development withdrew a Covid-19 relief plan focused on food aid because the commission could not agree on whether the plan should also address abortion.

Not infrequently, the pope said, “the center of interest has shifted to matters that by their divisive nature do not strictly belong to the aims of the [United Nations] organization.”

Not infrequently, the pope said, “the center of interest has shifted to matters that by their divisive nature do not strictly belong to the aims of the organization” and “agendas are increasingly dictated by a mindset that rejects the natural foundations of humanity and the cultural roots that constitute the identity of many peoples.”

Francis denounced this as “a form of ideological colonization, one that leaves no room for freedom of expression and is now taking the form of the ‘cancel culture’ [that is] invading many circles and public institutions.”

“Under the guise of defending diversity, it ends up canceling all sense of identity, with the risk of silencing positions that defend a respectful and balanced understanding of various sensibilities,” the pope said.

“Multilateral diplomacy is thus called to be truly inclusive,” he said, “not canceling but cherishing the differences and sensibilities that have historically marked various peoples.” He said this “calls for reciprocal trust and willingness to dialogue” and the acceptance of “fundamental values” such as “the right to life, from conception to its natural end, and the right to religious freedom.”

The Covid-19 pandemic

Pope Francis devoted the first part of his talk to “the fight against the pandemic,” which “still calls for a significant effort on the part of everyone.” He said that “it is important to continue the effort to immunize the general population as much as possible.”

Referring to those who refuse to be vaccinated against Covid-19, he said, “Sadly, we are finding increasingly that we live in a world of strong ideological divides. Frequently people let themselves be influenced by the ideology of the moment, often bolstered by baseless information or poorly documented facts.”

On the other hand, he said, “The pandemic urges us to adopt a sort of ‘reality therapy’ that makes us confront the problem head on and adopt suitable remedies to resolve it. Vaccines are not a magical means of healing, yet surely they represent, in addition to other treatments that need to be developed, the most reasonable solution for the prevention of the disease.”

"The pandemic urges us to adopt a sort of ‘reality therapy’ that makes us confront the problem head on and adopt suitable remedies to resolve it."

Francis also emphasized the need for “a political commitment…to pursue the good of the general population through measures of prevention and immunization that also engage citizens so that they can feel involved and responsible, thanks to a clear discussion of the problems and the appropriate means of addressing them.”

He called for “a comprehensive commitment” by the international community “so that the entire world population can have equal access to essential medical care and vaccines.” He lamented the fact that “for large areas of the world, universal access to health care remains an illusion.”

Welcoming migrants and refugees

Pope Francis devoted another portion of his talk to the migration crisis. He recalled his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos in December and how he saw in the eyes of the children and adult migrants “their fear of an uncertain future, their sorrow for the loved ones they left behind and their nostalgia for the homeland they were forced to depart.” He told the ambassadors and the governments they represent, “Before those faces, we cannot be indifferent or hide behind walls and barbed wires under the pretext of defending security or a style of life.”

He thanked those individuals and governments, such as Greece and Italy, that are working to ensure that migrants are welcomed, protected, supported and integrated. Acknowledging “the difficulties that some states encounter in the face of a large influx of people,” he said, “no one can be asked to do what is impossible for them, yet there is a clear difference between accepting, albeit in a limited way, and rejecting completely.”

“There is a need to overcome indifference and to reject the idea that migrants are a problem for others,” Pope Francis said.

“There is a need to overcome indifference and to reject the idea that migrants are a problem for others,” Pope Francis said. This approach results in migrants becoming concentrated in hotspots where they can fall prey to organized crime and human traffickers or make desperate attempts to escape that at times end in death, he said. He lamented that migrants “are often turned into a weapon of ‘political blackmail’ that deprives them of their dignity.”

He appealed to the European Union to “arrive at internal cohesion in handling migration movements, just as it did in dealing with the effects of the pandemic.” But “the migration issue does not regard Europe alone,” he said, and pointed to “the massive migration movements on the American continent, which press upon the border between Mexico and the United States of America.” He said, “Many of those migrants are Haitians fleeing the tragedies that have struck their country in recent years.”

Climate change

Referring to the challenge of climate change, Francis said, “We have seen a growing collective awareness of the urgent need to care for our common home, which is suffering from the constant and indiscriminate exploitation of its resources.” He recalled the recent disaster caused by Typhoon Rai in the Philippines and the plight of other nations in the Pacific. He said awareness of all this “should impel the international community to discover and implement common solutions. None may consider themselves exempt from this effort, since all of us are involved and affected in equal measure.”

He recognized that “several steps in the right direction” were taken at the recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow but labeled them as “rather weak in light of the gravity of the problem to be faced.” He said “much still remains to be done” to implement the Paris Climate Accords and said that 2022 will be another fundamental year for verifying how the decisions taken in Glasgow can be further consolidated “in view of COP27, planned for Egypt next November.”

Against the arms trade

Pope Francis also spoke about the crisis in Lebanon and drew attention especially to the “proxy wars” being fought in many nations, including Syria and Yemen. He spoke about the lack of progress toward peace between Israel and Palestine, and conflicts in Libya, the Sahel region of Africa, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Ukraine, the southern Caucasus, new outbreaks of violence in the Balkans, and the crisis in Myanmar.

At this point, Francis condemned international arms trade, saying, “Naturally, these conflicts are exacerbated by the abundance of weapons on hand and the unscrupulousness of those who make every effort to supply them.”

“At times, we deceive ourselves into thinking that these weapons serve to dissuade potential aggressors,” he said. But “history and, sadly, even daily news reports, make it clear that this is not the case.” He said these concerns “have become even more real” today “if we consider the availability and employment of autonomous weapon systems that can have terrible and unforeseen consequences.” He called for these new weapons to “be subject to the responsibility of the international community.”

Pope Francis next turned to nuclear arms, repeating his moral condemnation of the production and possession of such weapons. He recalled that the Tenth Review Conference of the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons had been scheduled to take place in New York at the end of December but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. He insisted that “a world free of nuclear arms is possible and necessary” and expressed hope that the international community “will view that conference as an opportunity to take a significant step in this direction.”

Education as an investment in the future

Francis also emphasized the vital importance of education in today’s world, calling it “the primary vehicle of integral human development” and said that “no society can ever abdicate its responsibility for education.” He lamented that “state budgets often allocate few resources for education, which tends to be viewed as an expense, instead of the best possible investment for the future.”

He recalled that the Catholic Church “has always recognized and valued the role of education in the spiritual, moral and social growth of the young” and then, surprisingly, turned to the abuse scandal. “It pains me, then, to acknowledge that in different educational settings—parishes and schools—the abuse of minors has occurred, resulting in serious psychological and spiritual consequences for those who experienced them,” Francis said. “These are crimes, and they call for a firm resolve to investigate them fully, examining each case to ascertain responsibility, to ensure justice to the victims and to prevent similar atrocities from taking place in the future.”

Francis recalled that the pandemic prevented many young people from attending school, to the detriment of their personal and social development, while modern technology enabled many “to take refuge in virtual realities that create strong psychological and emotional links but isolate them from others and the world around them, radically modifying social relationships.” He urged people to “be watchful lest these instruments substitute for true human relationships at the interpersonal, familial, social and international levels.”

“If we learn to isolate ourselves at an early age, it will later prove more difficult to build bridges of fraternity and peace,” he said. “In a world where there is just ‘me,’ it is difficult to make room for ‘us.’”

The ambassadors applauded at length when Francis finished speaking. They then went to the Sistine Chapel for a group photo, and he greeted each one individually. Patrick Connell, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy to the Holy See, represented the United States as former Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, President Joe Biden’s pick for ambassador, has not yet received congressional approval.

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