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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 13, 2020
Pope Francis greets family members as he arrives to lead his general audience in the San Damaso courtyard at the Vatican Sept. 9, 2020. The pope spoke with the family and gave them a blessing in English. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis drew attention to the “numerous popular protests all over the world, in many parts” that have taken place in recent weeks. During his address to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square Sept. 13, he called on protestors to express their demands “peacefully” and he appealed to all those “with public and governmental responsibilities” to listen to the demonstrators and “meet their just aspirations, ensuring full respect for human rights and civil liberties.”

Significantly, he said the protests are “expressing the growing unease of civil society in the face of particularly critical political and social situations.” While Francis did not mention any country or any place in particular in his remarks, one can think of several situations that he almost certainly had in mind from Lebanon and Belarus to Greece, the United States, Hong Kong and South Africa.

Protests are “expressing the growing unease of civil society in the face of particularly critical political and social situations.”

Speaking from the papal study window in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, to the hundreds of pilgrims and Romans in St. Peter’s Square and to a far larger global audience following online, Pope Francis first addressed the protestors. “I urge the demonstrators to present their demands peacefully, without giving in to the temptation of aggression and violence,” he said.

He constantly appeals for non-violent, peaceful protests and the avoidance of aggression against people or destruction of property, in accordance with the social teaching of the church.

Francis next addressed those who exercise “public and governmental” power in the different places across the world. The expression is significantly broad and would seem to include not only those in government but also the police and other forces of order.

Pope Francis also called on church leaders “to work for dialogue, always in favor of dialogue, and in favor of reconciliation.” Earlier in his address to the pilgrims, commenting on today’s Gospel reading, he had underlined the need for “forgiveness, reconciliation” and told people “remember the end (of your life), and stop hating.”

Pope Francis also called on church leaders “to work for dialogue, always in favor of dialogue, and in favor of reconciliation.”

Pope Francis has been following the increasing number of protests across the world. He has been particularly concerned about the political tensions, protests and repression in Belarus following the much-contested presidential election there on Aug. 9. He knows too that Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, metropolitan of Minsk and Mogilev and chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Belarus, was denied entry to the country on Aug. 31, as he was returning from Poland. After appealing publicly for peace and dialogue in Belarus, Pope Francis sent Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the secretary for relations with states, as his personal envoy to Minsk on Sept. 11 to convey his “closeness and solidarity” to the local church and the people of that country. The Vatican diplomat will remain there until Sept. 14 and will meet the country’s political authorities and church leaders.

Earlier this week protests broke out on the Greek island of Lesbos following the almost total destruction by fire of the Moria refugee camp, the largest such camp in Europe with a total of 12,000 migrants and refugees. Pope Francis today expressed his “solidarity and closeness to all the victims of these dramatic events” and his concern for “the thousands” there who are now “without a shelter, even a precarious one.” He recalled his visit there on April 16, 2016, with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens, and the appeal he then made with them to “do our part towards giving migrants, refugees and asylum seekers a humane and dignified welcome in Europe.” His words came as a new appeal to Europe to help these poor migrants and asylum seekers.

Over the past month, Pope Francis has been greatly concerned with Lebanon, and has spoken on several occasions about the grave social, economic and political tensions exacerbated by the explosion in Beirut over a month ago. He called on believers to hold a day of fasting and prayer for that country on Sept. 4, and sent Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, to Beirut on that day.

Pope Francis has also been following closely the social unrest and protests in the United States, Vatican sources told America. On June 3, in a message to his “dear brothers and sisters in the United States”—meaning the entire nation—he spoke of his “great concern” at “the disturbing social unrest” following “the tragic death of George Floyd,” which he attributed to “the sin of racism.” He stated clearly then: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

Francis has been following the protests and repression in Hong Kong in recent months too, sources confirmed to America, but so far he has not spoken out publicly on this, despite coming under pressure to do so from many quarters. He did not read a prepared text (given to journalists in advance) on July 9 dealing with that dramatic situation, and the Vatican has offered no explanation for this. His remarks today, however, would appear to have a relevance to that situation too, even though he carefully avoided mentioning any part of the world by name.

As he concluded his greeting this Sunday, Francis drew the attention of pilgrims and his global audience to the plight of Christians in the Holy Land. He recalled that every year on Good Friday collections are taken in Catholic churches throughout the world to help these beleaguered Christian communities. But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, that collection had to be moved to this Sunday, the eve of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Pope Francis concluded, “in today’s context, this collection is an even greater sign of hope and solidarity with the Christians living in the land where God became flesh and died and rose again for us.” He urged Christians to “make a spiritual pilgrimage, in spirit, in our imagination, with the heart, to Jerusalem” and “make a gesture of generosity towards those communities.”

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