Pope of the fringes: Francis as pilgrim-diplomat
MANILA, Philippines – What does it take to be part of the coveted itinerary of a pope who earned rock star status ironically for his simplicity?
Pope Francis is as maverick a traveler as he is a leader. In his first 20 months as head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Francis chose to visit 3 Muslim majority nations including a relatively obscure European state, Latin America, the Middle East, and an Asian country technically still at war with its neighbor.
The Argentine Jesuit’s first 6 overseas trips reflect not just Francis’ distinction as the first pope from the developing world, but also a constant theme of his papacy: reaching out to the world’s “peripheries” or “fringes,” meaning his favorite type of people: the poor and the vulnerable.
From visiting Europe’s shunned immigrants to South Korea’s comfort women, the Pope carries his passions as Buenos Aires’ former “slum bishop.” He criticizes inequality, cultivates interfaith dialogue, and champions peace.
After all, the Pope is no ordinary diplomat. In brokering diplomatic breakthroughs like the US-Cuban rapprochement, the Vatican’s head of state uses the weight of his moral authority to actively engage in the global stage.
As he journeys back to Asia via Sri Lanka and the Philippines, we track the Pope’s trips, quips, and his vintage brand of diplomacy, Francis-style.
1. Brazil: ‘Who am I to judge?’
Mick Jagger’s concert on Copacabana beach was no match to Pope Francis’ “immense feast of faith” in Rio de Janeiro. The pontiff’s debut trip to Brazil in July 2013 was a smash hit, from pilgrims mobbing his open-window Fiat upon arrival, to a crowd of 3 million sending him off in one of the biggest turnouts for a papal Mass.
In the world’s largest Catholic country, the first Latin American pope responded to this enthusiasm with energy and a packed schedule that came to characterize his foreign trips. He urged World Youth Day pilgrims to overcome apathy, and to spread their faith in a region where evangelical churches are on the rise.
The 78-year-old football fan told young Brazilians dancing the samba, “Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup!”
Upon his request, Francis walked around a slum area known as Brazil’s Gaza Strip where he echoed protesters’ sentiment against corruption and poor public services. Visits to a drug rehab center and a prison further illustrated his message against a society that “pushes to the margins a part of itself.”
A pivotal point of the visit and his papacy occurred after takeoff in a conversation with reporters. While his predecessors labeled homosexuality a “disorder,” Francis delivered what was dubbed as 2013’s “most powerful phrase.”
“If a person is gay, seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
2. Holy Land: ‘Diversity should not trigger rejection’
The Pope’s whirlwind visit to Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel in May 2014 was supposed to be a strictly religious affair but Francis went off script.
Captured in a viral photo, the Holy Father made a surprise stop in the West Bank, pressed his head against the separation wall with a “Free Palestine” graffiti, and prayed. Pulling off a delicate balancing act, he appeased Israelis by agreeing to an impromptu trip to an Israeli memorial for terrorism victims the next day.
Francis tried his own hand at peace by inviting the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to a prayer summit in the Vatican following the collapse of US-brokered talks.
War broke out in Gaza just days after his initiative but the Pope said, “Under the smoke and the bombs right now, it’s hard to see the door that was opened but that door is still open.”
An enduring image of the trip was Francis in Jerusalem embracing his rabbi and imam friends from Argentina, the first time a papal delegation included members of other faiths. It was a compelling gesture of the Church uniting with two other great monotheistic religions: Judaism and Islam.
Francis said, “Diversity of ideas and persons should not trigger rejection or prove an obstacle, for variety always enriches.”
3. South Korea: ‘World seeks more than material wealth’
Once a frustrated missionary to Japan, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio finally made it to Asia, amusing status-conscious South Koreans as he climbed into the small Kia Soul car. A Seoul resident tweeted, “The pope rode the Soul because he is full of soul.”
Francis made up for Pope Benedict XVI’s skipping Asia, a continent where the Church’s growth counters the decline in Europe and the US. The Italian-speaking pope spontaneously connected to Asian Youth Day participants in English, with the crowd cheering him on. When he said his English was poor, the kids cried, “No!”
In his 5-day visit in August 2014, the Bishop of Rome called for reconciliation in the Korean peninsula, and beatified lay Korean martyrs. “Are there two Koreas? No, there is one but the family is divided. My advice is to pray, pray for our brothers in the North that there might not be victors and defeated, only one family.”
The Pope had a soft spot for families of the Sewol ferry sinking victims and comfort women, wearing their pins as a sign of solidarity. Told that he should be impartial, he replied: “Listen, with human pain, you can’t be neutral. That’s how I feel.”
In a land complete with the latest tablets and smartphones, Francis reminded bishops of the ideals of “a poor Church for the poor.”
“Proclaim to a world that, for all its material prosperity, is seeking something more, something greater, something authentic and fulfilling.”
4. Albania: ‘To kill in God’s name is sacrilege’
Sorry Paris, Berlin, and London. The first non-European pope in over 1,200 years chose Albania’s capital of Tirana as his first stop in Europe. The Balkan nation’s Muslims and Christians endured brutal oppression in the 1960s under one of the worst communist regimes but now live and work together peacefully.
The Muslim majority country welcomed Francis in September 2014, with Muslims even joining jubilant crowds of Catholics, who wore colorful traditional costumes and crosses around their necks. A man held up a placard that summed up His Holiness’ message: “I love the Bible and Koran because I am Albanian.”
The Pope told leaders of various faiths to condemn extremists who “pervert” religion to justify violence. In an obvious reference to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Francis said: “To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.”
He was at a loss for words upon hearing Albanians’ own stories of persecution. After a priest narrated his years of torture and near death in a labor camp, a visibly moved Francis kissed the Franciscan’s hand, put his head against his, and wept.
Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell wrote, “I have been on many papal trips to foreign countries over the past 30 years and have experienced some profoundly moving and faith-filled moments on several of them but I have never before seen a pope so overcome with emotion that he wept.”
5. France: ‘Europe is like a grandmother, no longer fertile’
The Pope’s Strasbourg swing stood out both for its brevity and sharp rebuke. In just 4 hours on November 25, 2014, the pontiff delivered back-to-back speeches that the New York Times described as “a strikingly blunt critique of Europe’s malaise.”
In the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, gone was the Francis who smiled and worked the crowds. The Pope admonished Europe’s bureaucracy for handling the economic crisis in a way that reduced people to “cogs in a machine.”
He spoke passionately about hunger, labor, and especially immigration. He took the European Union to task for bickering about who should bear the burden of rescue missions and resettling immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.
“We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery,” said the man whose first trip outside Rome as pope was to the Italian island of Lampedusa where desperate migrants drowned while trying to reach Europe.
Francis offended feminists by comparing the continent to “a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant.” UK’s The Guardian called it “an insult to grandmothers and a slur on the church.”
To Vatican expert John L Allen Jr, the speeches were a wake-up call for Europe to draw on its Christian legacy. “Francis argued that many of the specific political problems facing Europe, from immigration and extremism to rising youth employment, have a spiritual core.”
6. Turkey: ‘We cannot say all Muslims are terrorists’
Days after his French foray, Francis set out to Turkey, a nation hosting 1.6 million refugees fleeing ISIS atrocities including the massacre of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities. Months back, he said that the United Nations, not a lone country like the US, must stop this “unjust aggressor.”
From Ankara’s new presidential palace to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, the Pope reached out to leaders to grant religious freedom and to condemn terrorism. A pious Muslim, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pointed to “rising Islamophobia in the West.”
Francis told journalists he understands the sentiment. “We cannot say all Muslims are terrorists, just as we cannot say that all Christians are fundamentalists – we also have fundamentalists among us, all religious have these small groups.”
The Catholic leader made another overture, this time to the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I. In a poignant moment, Francis bowed to Bartholomew and asked his blessing, symbolizing his effort to unite their churches since the schism in 1054 that divided Rome and Constantinople.
Francis capped his November visit through a joint declaration with Bartholomew. In a show of Christian unity, the leaders said: “We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians, who have professed the name of Jesus there for 2,000 years.”
From the country that bridges East and West, the pontiff, literally the builder of bridges, heads to Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the US, France, Latin America and Africa to touch the world’s forgotten.
Francis looks forward to his ultimate destination. “This will last only a short time. Two or 3 years and then I’ll be off to the Father’s house.” – Rappler.com