Francis as Bridge-Builder
As America’s Vatican correspondent, I have had the privilege to accompany Pope Francis during the past year as he visited 11 countries on four continents. I have also observed close-up his major initiatives in the Vatican, including the creation of new cardinals, the publication of the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” the closing of the meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family and the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy in Rome, after his visit to Bangui in the Central African Republic.
In this, my last column of the year, I wish to share some reflections on the attractive, humble witness that Pope Francis has given to the Gospel in these events.
I begin with the foreign visits. On two of them, he showed extraordinary courage and determination, rooted in deep faith and trust in God. First in the Philippines on Jan. 17, when, despite a growing tropical storm, he flew to Tacloban, the island hit by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, to console and give hope to its inhabitants. There, amid high winds and rain, Francis drove among them and celebrated Mass wearing a yellow poncho. But he had to cut his visit short because of rising gale-force winds.
That same courage, determination and faith stood out like a bright star in the night sky when Francis, dismissing strong opposition and dire warnings, flew into Bangui on Nov. 29 to show his closeness to the beleaguered citizens of the Central African Republic’s capital, crushed by conflict and poverty. They welcomed him as a liberator everywhere he went and hailed him as a bringer of peace and hope.
As pope, Francis has given priority attention to what he calls the peripheries: situations of conflict, injustice, suffering and exclusion. He did this on Nov. 29, when, breaking centuries-old tradition, he opened the Jubilee of Mercy in Bangui’s cathedral, not in Rome, and told the people: “Today Bangui becomes the spiritual capital of the world. The Holy Year of Mercy arrives in advance in this land that has suffered for several years from war, hatred, incomprehension, and the lack of peace” and “in this suffering land there are all the countries in the world that are suffering the cross of war. We all ask for peace, mercy, reconciliation, pardon and love for Bangui, for the Central African Republic and for all the countries suffering from war.”
He prioritized the peripheries too by visiting Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Sarajevo. And in his keynote talk to the World Meeting of Popular Movements at Santa Cruz, Bolivia, he spoke strongly for the rights of countless millions of people who live amid poverty, misery and other forms of injustice.
Visiting Cuba and the United States, he sought to encourage normalization of relations between them, which he had helped broker.
Francis’ vision is global and inclusive; he is concerned about all the world’s inhabitants, not only about Catholics. This was reflected in his decision to focus on two subjects that touch everybody: ecology and the family. He captured the world’s attention with both his encyclical, subtitled “On the Care of Our Common Home,” and the synod on the family.
His authentic leadership, original lifestyle, vision and peace efforts earned him an unforgettable reception when he addressed the U.S. Congress. And the following day, more than 150 world leaders were present when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly.
Throughout the year, Francis energized Catholics worldwide by reminding them that one proclaims the Gospel by the witness of a life that reflects the central elements of Jesus’ message: love, mercy, encounter, inclusion and the preferential option for the poor.
The pope believes firmly in the culture of encounter. He visited, for example, a Buddhist temple in Colombo, a Lutheran church in Rome and the evangelical churches’ theology faculty in Bangui. Most significant of all, he went to the central mosque in Bangui, in the heart of the city’s Muslim enclave, which has been a flashpoint for violence in recent years, where Christians and Muslims killed one another. Francis prayed in the mosque, affirmed that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters” and then, riding with an imam on the popemobile, visited Muslims from a refugee camp in a nearby school sports field. It was the sort of healing action that helps create the climate for peace.
These are some of the memorable ways with which Francis built bridges in 2015. Expect many more in 2016.