Antonio Olivié & Javier Martínez-Brocal. Church, Communication, and Culture. Volume 5, Issue 1, 2020.
World Youth Day in Panama, 2019
In the five days he spent in Panama, Francis mobilized young people from all over the world with an optimistic message and by speaking out against exclusion. The Pope left Rome on January 23rd for his third World Youth Day, the first in Central America. On the isthmus, 150,000 young people from 155 countries, including China and Cuba, were waiting for him.
His first address was to the civil authorities of the country, although the Pope knew his words would resound throughout Latin America. Francis asked them to build just and honest governments as well as a society in which all young people could find work. ‘Another world is possible! We know this and young people urge us to take our part in building it, so that our dreams do not remain ephemeral or ethereal,’ he told them, adding, ‘The right to the future is also a human right.’
With youth as the trip’s center of attention, Francis went to those who could not go out to the street to greet him or participate in the meetings, visiting 167 minors imprisoned in the Penitentiary of Las Garzas. There he presided over a penitential ceremony, during which he heard the confessions of several of them. In his welcoming speech, he asked them not to let themselves be discouraged by those who murmur and gossip, who criticize them without giving them a second chance.
Francis held four massive gatherings with young people in Panama. The first one set the tone for the following days. He invited them to continue advancing in the faith, but not in any old way: ‘To go forward, not to create a parallel Church that would be more “fun” or “cool” thanks to a fancy youth event, as if that were all you needed or wanted. That way of thinking would respect neither you nor everything that the Spirit is saying through you.’
For a week, young people from different cultures and races spent time together in Panama. Francis thanked them: ‘By your actions and your approach, your way of looking at things, your desires and above all your sensitivity, you discredit and defuse the kind of talk that is intent on sowing division, the kind of talk that is intent on excluding or rejecting those who are not “like us”.’
Later, during a public Way of the Cross prayed on the shores of the Pacific and in the shadow of skyscrapers, he symbolically referenced the human dramas playing out all over Latin America: migration out of Venezuela, peace and reconciliation in Colombia, drug wars in Mexico, and the loneliness of so many young single or separated mothers in large cities in the United States.
‘We have looked away in order not to see; we have taken refuge in noise in order not to hear; we have covered our mouths in order not to cry out. The temptation is always the same… Your Son’s way of the cross continues in those young people with downcast faces who have lost the ability to dream, create and shape their future, and have already chosen to “retire” in glum resignation or complacency, one of the narcotics most consumed in our time.’
At the summit event, a prayer vigil with the young people, while it was getting dark in Panama, the Pope reflected with them on their fears, their concerns and their role in the Church.
‘We know well that to feel acknowledged or loved it is not enough to be connected all day long. To feel respected and asked to get involved is greater than simply being “on-line”. It means finding spaces where, with your hands, your heart and your head, you can feel part of a larger community that needs you and that you yourselves, young people, need.’
The vigil included a Eucharistic adoration. The monstrance that contained the Sacred Host had been made with melted bullets that a Colombian sculptor had taken out of circulation.
Tens of thousands of young people spent the night in that esplanade: in that same place the following morning, Francis celebrated World Youth Day’s closing Mass. There he reminded them that they are not the future but the present of the Church. He invited them to dream, to find a passion that would fill their lives with joy and gratitude. ‘You young people are the now of God,’ he told them. ‘He invites you and calls you in your communities and cities to go out and find your grandparents, your elders; to stand up and with them to speak out and realize the dream that the Lord has dreamed for you.’
At the end of the ceremony, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, president of the Dicastery for the Laity, announced that the next World Youth Day would take place in Lisbon in 2022.
The Panama World Youth Day cost about $54 million, covered by pilgrim registrations and sponsor contributions. The organizing committee estimated that it would yield approximately $250 million in benefits, not counting the impact of tourism in Central America.
Signing of a Joint Declaration with Islam
The first trip of a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula, from 3rd to 5th February, was the beginning of a new stage in relations between Catholics and Muslims. Francis’ visit to the United Arab Emirates commemorated the 800th anniversary of the encounter between Saint Francis and the Sultan of Egypt, Al-Malik Al-Kamil.
‘I am happy that the Lord has given me this opportunity to write, on your beloved land, a new page in the history of interreligious relations, confirming that we are brothers and sisters even though we are different,’ Francis said in Rome, four days before he left.
And he literally did just that. In Abu Dhabi he signed, together with important Muslim leaders, ‘A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’, a commitment of real fraternity between Christians and Muslims to resolve differences. Subsequently, Jewish leaders also joined the declaration.
Francis signed it together with the Great Imam of the Al-Azhar University of Cairo, Ahmed Al Tayeb, who is considered a religious point of reference for 1,100 million Sunni Muslims.
The document’s starting point is faith in God. Although Islam and Catholicism are different religions, they coincide in the idea that ‘The first and most important aim of religions is to believe in God, to honour Him and to invite all men and women to believe that this universe depends on a God who governs it.’
The document then offers a list of fundamental rights that the two leaders are committed to promote throughout the world because, as it says, ‘Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved.’ Precisely because of this, God’s name cannot be used to justify ‘murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.’
The text also declares that ‘religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.’ This violence—it explains—is the result of the deviation of religious teachings, their political use and the tendency to instrumentalize religion to incite ‘hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism.’
The document says it is ‘necessary to stop supporting terrorist movements fueled by financing, the provision of weapons and strategy, and by attempts to justify these movements even using the media.’ All these activities constitute ‘international crimes that threaten security and world peace.’
The declaration promotes the concept of ‘citizenship’ based on dignity, rights and duties, and fair treatment. The document calls for ‘full citizenship and [for people to] reject the discriminatory use of the term minorities which engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority.’ Curiously, the United Arab Emirates does not recognize the citizenship of non-Muslims, although they are free to practice their religion.
In the document, both the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar call for the recognition of the right of women to receive education, to have a job and to enjoy political rights, to be free from social conditioning and from the sexual exploitation that treats them as objects. Children must also be protected and must live in a family environment that guarantees education, nutrition and support, together with the needy, the disabled and the elderly.
Some Catholic sectors criticized this point: ‘The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.’ In response, Francis explained that, ‘Scholastic theologians used to refer to God’s voluntas permissiva. He wanted to allow this reality.’
In a meeting with journalists during the return trip to Rome, the Pope explained the context of the preparation for this declaration on human fraternity.
‘For me, there is only one great danger at this moment: destruction, war, hatred among us. And if we believers are not able to shake hands, embrace, kiss one another and pray, then our faith will be defeated. This Document springs from faith in God who is Father of all and Father of peace and [it] condemns all destruction, all terrorism.’
During the general audience in which he explained to pilgrims the reasons for the trip, Francis said, ‘In an epoch such as our own, in which there is a strong temptation to see an ongoing conflict between the Christian and Islamic civilizations, and also to consider religions as a source of conflict, we wished to give an ulterior, clear and decisive sign, that it is indeed possible to come together; it is possible to respect one another and to dialogue.’
‘Together we state the common vocation of all men and women to be brothers and sisters as we are the sons and daughters of God; we condemn all forms of violence, especially those cloaked in religious motivations; and we commit ourselves to spread authentic values and peace throughout the world,’ he said, summarizing the document.
Since that trip, Francis has given a copy of the text to each head of state or government who visits him in the Vatican, along with his other significant texts (his apostolic exhortations on Evangelization, the Family, Youth and Holiness, and his encyclical Laudato si’ on the care of the environment), a gesture which seems to suggest the pontiff considers this declaration one of his most relevant documents.
Wanting to rise above the level of good intentions, the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity was born following the Pope’s trip to promote initiatives in line with the document. Members include Monsignor Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, personal secretary of the Holy Father, as well as Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation.
One of their first initiatives is the ‘Abrahamic Family House,’ a complex to be built in Abu Dhabi that will include a church, a mosque and a synagogue. The idea was born with the goal of becoming a collective space for dialogue between religions. Each religion will have an independent structure and will have a shared space for meetings.
The Child Abuse Crisis
One of the great milestones of 2019 was the Summit on ‘Protection of Minors in the Church’ convened by Francis at the Vatican. More than 100 bishops and other Church authorities representing episcopal conferences and major religious congregations attended. The Pope had asked all participants to meet victims of abuse in their countries before travelling to Rome. In addition, as part of the sessions held at the Vatican, several victims shared their testimonies.
Giving a voice to those who have suffered and putting them in the forefront could be considered a radical move as well as an effective way of communicating to Catholics that the Church should not worry about its reputation or that of the hierarchy, but rather prioritize the sometimes ignored and excluded abuse victims.
Rather than offer immediate solutions to this serious problem, the February summit tried to lay the foundations for a change of mentality: the Church must always be on the side of the weakest and those who have suffered.
Part of the protagonism of the victims has been promoted by Pope Francis himself, listening directly to those who have suffered abuse by priests or clergy in different countries. But above all it was the fact that victims participated and had visibility in this summit, not to mention that bishops from all over the world listened publicly to some shocking testimonies.
The attitude toward abuse has changed. It is no longer a cold question, considered from a canonical point of view with regulated penalties, but rather a pastoral priority focused on helping victims.
The conclusion to the meeting following the Holy Mass that was celebrated to close the summit reflected this perspective, starting from the demand for a mobilization of the Church against the abuse of minors. In this sense, Pope Francis called for a ‘all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas, on the part of all authorities and individuals, for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth.’
The Pope concretized the fight against abuses in eight points, beginning by leaving behind the idea of needing to protect the institution’s good name rather than the good of persons.
The eight points are the following: the protection of children; impeccable seriousness; genuine purification; formation; strengthening and reviewing guidelines by episcopal conferences; accompaniment of those who have been abused; protection in the digital world; and fighting against sexual tourism.
The Pope stated, ‘A change of mentality is needed to combat a defensive and reactive approach to protecting the institution and to pursue, wholeheartedly and decisively, the good of the community by giving priority to the victims of abuse in every sense.’
The consequent measures focused on bringing offenders to justice, repairing the damage done, improving the selection of candidates for the priesthood and, of course, not covering up abuses when they occur. Pope Francis wanted to emphasize this last point, saying the Church speaks of ‘rules, not simply indications’ so that, ‘no abuse should ever be covered up (as was often the case in the past) or not taken sufficiently seriously, since the covering up of abuses favours the spread of evil and adds a further level of scandal.’
Pope Francis mentioned the need to address the problem of the abuses at a global level, since child abuse is a societal problem, and not just a Church issue. Unfortunately, public opinion and the media hardly paid attention to this aspect and continued exclusively focusing on the Church.
The summit left just enough room to consider good prevention practices against abuse, both in the Vatican as well as in many dioceses, starting with the United States where they have been addressing this problem for a while now. Journalists covering this topic have experienced firsthand the quality of some initiatives in this direction. Among others, the diocese of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) is a model: there, women lead in the care of victims, with departments for legal and pastoral care. The fruits of this work are palpable, with some victims returning to religious practice and encouraging others to return. Mimika Garesché, the head of the new Victim Accompaniment Office, believes those who have suffered traumatic experiences and return to the Church have a lot to teach others. Her view is that abuse survivors are ‘the people who are going to help renew the Church.’
In Rome, the Center for Child Protection of the Gregorian University is promoting the training of specialists in management and care for victims all over the world. This center also has a large number of women in leadership positions.
A secondary aspect of this story is that the biggest media players do not seem interested in these good practices nor in the change of trend that has already begun to bear fruit.
Attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka
According to a 2018 report on Religious Freedom in the World published by Aid to the Church in Need, one of every 7 Christians lives in a country that is hostile to the faith. There are around 300 million Christians who find themselves in this situation.
Aid to the Church in Need identified 38 countries where there are serious or extreme violations of religious freedom, and 21 of these include episodes of ‘persecution’.
Sri Lanka was not included in this report.
Statistics changed, however, following the terrorist attacks that occurred on April 21, Resurrection Sunday, which left 250 people dead. Most of the victims died in kamikaze explosions inside two Catholic churches and one Protestant, although coordinated attacks were also recorded in four hotels.
The number of victims makes it one of the worst attacks against Christians in recent years.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Church in Sri Lanka has shown maturity and strength. The Cardinal of Colombo, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, said that after the tragedy ‘people have brought out the best in themselves.’
Just a month after the attacks, one of the authors of this article had the opportunity to visit the two Catholic churches where terrorists committed suicide.
One of them is the church of Saint Sebastian in Negombo, a Christian-majority town where the army was working day and night to reconstruct the church. Meanwhile, dozens of faithful approached the site to pray to two images that are in the parish complex: one of St. Sebastian dressed as a Roman soldier and another of Mary Immaculate.
Some people in the neighborhood expressed their fears, especially because the Government announced after the attacks that active members of the terrorist cell were still roaming free. But the majority demonstrated great faith, viewing their neighbours and relatives who died in the attacks as martyrs for being killed for their faith, inside a church. Even those who suffered the loss of their husband or wife did not hesitate to forgive.
The other church that suffered an attack was St Anthony’s Church in Colombo, the capital. It is a much revered shrine in Sri Lanka, as the Portuguese missionaries who evangelized the island in the 16th century spread devotion to St. Anthony of Padua, which extends beyond the Catholic population: even Buddhists and Hindus visit the shrine, trusting its reputation for miracles.
If the Church of Sri Lanka stands out in one aspect, it is in its abundance of young people. There are many young priests: the seminaries are full. In fact, there are several projects in some dioceses to enlarge the seminaries. Vocations are not lacking in a country where the Catholic Church enjoys cultural and social prestige.
Although only 10% of the population is Catholic, the Church manages some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country, even though the government expropriated most of the schools in the 1970s. Nevertheless, Buddhist and Hindu leaders tend to take their children to Catholic schools.
The Catholic Church has also played an important role in national reconciliation. After a bloody civil war, famous for being the origin of suicide attacks between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups, Catholic authorities present in both groups reinforced a peaceful resolution.
Since the civil war ended in 2009, Sri Lanka has enjoyed peace and has developed tourism as one of its sources of growth. It has a number of first class hotels beside destination beaches. However, the threat of terrorist attacks has slowed down the flow of visitors.
In the hours following the attacks, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, made a decisive declaration calling on Christians not to blame Muslims for the atrocities. The cardinal also visited the Muslim neighborhood to receive a gesture of solidarity from Islamic representatives and once again to ask Christians not to retaliate. He reminded them that although terrorists can be blamed for what happened, in no case should an entire religion be held responsible.
At the same time, Ranjith did demand that measures be taken against Islamic radicalism, which has spread throughout the country especially in the last ten years. In his opinion, the political authorities have not been interested in controlling this phenomenon, the results of which are devastating.
These criminal attacks on Easter Sunday left hundreds of victims and many families with injuries. But they also helped reinforce the authority of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, a religious minority which, according to a priest from one of the churches that was attacked, is more active and committed than ever before.
The attacks in Sri Lanka represent the most lethal episode of religious persecution in recent years. But one of the biggest problems is that this religious persecution is hardly mentioned in the mainstream media. That is why the agreement of the United Nations last May to make 22nd August an ‘International day commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief’ was of great importance, almost historic.
Credit for the initiative goes to Poland, with a government that should be recognized for putting an issue on the table that many prefer to ignore. According to Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, ‘any kind of violence against people because they belong to a religious minority is unacceptable’. This was also shared by the representatives of Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan and the United States.
The fact that this International Day has also been promoted by governments with an Islamic majority is not of secondary importance.
The UN declaration reveals a new sensitivity to this serious problem. The U.S. State Department has a section devoted to religious freedom; Britain has also included it as one of the basic elements of its diplomacy and, in fact, has assured that once outside the European Union, its government will be able to defend it more forcefully. However, before these two nations took action, the first country to undertake a similar initiative was Hungary, which has a government department for persecuted Christians.
In July, hundreds of religious leaders and survivors of religious persecution gathered in Washington to make their situation known. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo intervened in a forum to honor and recognize those who have been persecuted.
It is clear that such meetings and the declaration of an ‘International Day’ will not radically change the situation of those who are persecuted for their religion. But the fact that the issue is in international forums and is discussed at a political level means that the problem is at least recognized. Until now in many places, the extent of this grave injustice was barely even noticed.
Only by recognizing the intensity of religious persecution throughout the world -which affects Christian minorities especially- can solutions be found. There needs to be public perception of the hatred against the faith for political action to respond accordingly.
Vladimir Putin and the Orthodox World
The most significant geopolitical meeting for Pope Francis this year was undoubtedly his encounter with Vladimir Putin.
It is difficult to find a country in the world with the diplomatic capacity and flexibility of the Holy See to relate to all kinds of leaders. The case of Vladimir Putin, internationally isolated after the invasion of the Crimea in 2014, is significant.
The president of the Russian Federation was received at the Vatican for the third time this year. On this occasion, moreover, on a symbolic date: 4th July, Independence Day for the United States.
An element that marked the meeting’s agenda was the political and religious crisis that Ukraine is going through, following the formation of a new Orthodox Patriarchate, independent from Moscow. The break with the latter reflects the political tension in Ukraine, the contrast between movements that want to break from Russia versus others that want to consolidate it, all of which has religious undertones.
Just after the meeting with Vladimir Putin—although not directly related—a Synod of the Greco-Catholic Church in Ukraine took place at the Vatican on 5th and 6th July. This church, which has remained on the sidelines in the dispute over the new Orthodox Patriarchate in the country, is in communion with Rome and is considered hostile by the Russian Orthodox Church. It is another piece of the religious-political puzzle that makes up the Eastern Church, an ecclesial reality that is an essential part of the ecumenical encounter.
Throughout the year, the Pope visited several countries with more Orthodox presence than Catholic, including Bulgaria, Romania and Macedonia. In all of them, he asked the local civil and religious leaders to opt for mutual respect, collaboration and mutual understanding, instead of deepening the small differences that separate them.
In these countries, Pope Francis has repeated the idea that ‘the Church breathes with two lungs. The oriental lung can be Orthodox or Catholic. The status quo should be maintained, with an entire culture and a pastoral life that must be preserved and protected.’ It is part of the approach of an encounter, not to attempt proselytism with the Orthodox, but to adopt an ‘ecumenism of walking together.’
One field of collaboration in this ‘walking together’ is the protection of persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East.
In this area, the Russian president has established himself as a firm defender of Christians in Syria and Iraq, presenting himself as an effective mediator between different governments so that they protect minorities.
Another area in which Russian interests coincide with those of the Vatican is in the defense of traditional family values. Putin manifested his opposition to ‘gender ideology.’ Part of his leadership has been based on opposing the hedonistic culture of old Europe to respect the nucleus of the family in Russia.
Diplomatic relations between the Russian Federation and the Holy See were re-established ten years ago under President Dmitry Medvedev. This reinstated an institutional dialogue that had been broken since the Russian Revolution of 1917. Keeping this pathway open is one of the successes of Vatican diplomacy.
Putin’s third visit to the Vatican did not open the door to one of Francis’ hopes: a papal visit to Russia. Nevertheless, the positive meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Havana in 2016 as well as the papal trips to Orthodox countries in recent months—which have not awakened animosity in Orthodox circles- all make a visit to Moscow more feasible, sooner or later.
Changes in the Vatican Press Office
On the first day of the New Year, there was a lot of traffic at the Vatican Press Office due to the changeup in the spokesman’s office. On a day of celebration all over the world, Greg Burke and Alessandro Gisotti—former and temporary spokesmen, respectively—sat down to exchange information and experiences, hoping to facilitate the ‘provisional’ transition as much as possible.
From the get-go, all the Vatican press releases reiterated that Gisotti was an ‘interim spokesman,’ that the decision was not final, and that time was needed to find a new director for the Sala Stampa.
To assist Alessandro Gisotti in this emergency stage, however, the Holy See appointed French journalist Romilda Ferrauto as ‘Senior Advisor’; North American Bernadette M. Reis and the Peruvian Raúl Cabrera Pérez as assistants; and Thaddeus Jones as ‘office manager’ in charge of staff management at the Press Office.
Although his first press conference on January 10 was to present the Athletica Vaticana, the first recreational association ever organized in the Vatican, Gisotti himself seemed to grab all the attention. ‘It is a delicate moment: I want to thank you for your trust and esteem towards me and towards the employees of the Press Office,’ Gisotti stated.
Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, certainly seemed to hold the same opinion, find himself in the challenging position of having to inform on behalf of the Holy See, offering the necessary context for an adequate interpretation of it all. One advantage is the more clearly-defined, new communication structure that in some way could make it easier to find the person who would fit into it.
The process of unifying the Vatican’s media has been as complicated as was expected, if not even more so. Prefect Ruffini inherited the project from Mons. Dario Viganò, who had set it in motion without giving much importance to some voices of resistance.
Ruffini entered a minefield and, with tact and patience, has mainly maintained Viganò’s ideas, adapting some of them to new circumstances. Today, under his supervision, there is an editorial director who coordinates the flow of information through the Vatican News portal (Andrea Tornielli), L’Osservatore Romano (directed by Andrea Monda), Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Centre. The director of the Press Office would be at the same level. Interestingly, this position is often identified with that of a spokesperson, but the Holy See has been rather reluctant to have one for decades now.
In the present setup, only the prefect interacts directly with the Pope’s office and with the Secretariat of State, and he must personally authorize all interventions made on behalf of the Holy See. Often, the so-called Vatican ‘spokesman’ cannot act on his own but must follow a long chain of command.
In this context, the Italian-British Matteo Bruni was appointed as director of the Press Office in July. He is 42 years old, has communicative skills, and speaks four languages. He has worked in the Press Office for years and has shown great capacity in the organization of Papal trips, the modernization of the accreditation system and the operative resolution of journalists’ problems.
The team was completed a week later with the appointment of Cristiane Murray, a 57-year old Brazilian with 24 years of experience at Vatican Radio, as deputy director of the Press Office.
The first major challenges for the new director and his number two were the Pope’s trip to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, and the Amazon Synod. They passed both of these tests without a problem.
Alessandro Gisotti has stayed on as deputy editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication. Months later, Dario Viganò became Vice Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, leaving behind his last position as ‘Advisor to the Prefect’ at the Dicastery.’
Vatican Denounces Pressure from China
In 2018, the Vatican and China reached a historic agreement with the aim of regularizing the situation of clandestine communities. The aim was to establish a path towards normalization and the integration of all Catholics in China into a single community.
At the time, some authorities of the clandestine Church denounced this agreement, saying it implied surrender to the communist authorities as well as a betrayal of the resistance of thousands of faithful. The Vatican insisted on the need to find a formula for integration and dialogue that would allow Chinese Catholics, especially clergy and bishops, to openly practice their religion.
The reality is that persecution from communist authorities has not eased. In fact, in June 2019, the Vatican publicly demanded the cessation of ‘intimidating pressure’ toward those who do not agree with the ‘official Church’.
The fact of the matter is that Beijing obliges priests to register in an official register. Being part of that group implies a commitment to respect ‘the independence, autonomy and self-determination of the Church.’ The text is confusing and open to multiple interpretations: when it refers to the dioceses’ autonomy it is correct. However, if ‘self-determination’ is understood on absolute terms, implying independence from the Vatican (and, therefore, the universal Church) then it is unacceptable for the Catholic Church.
The solution found by Vatican diplomacy was to propose that, when registering in the official Church, bishops and priests should have the possibility of writing the phrase themselves or pronouncing it verbally in the presence of a witness.
The Vatican’s call for an end to pressure on those who have not considered it a good thing to register shows that the 2018 agreement has not solved this crisis. The underlying tension between the two parties remains as the communist government continues to insist on rejecting any institution, civil or religious, that does not have full autonomy in its territory. They consider it foreign interference that the authority of the Church lies outside of China.
In September 2019, shortly after the Vatican’s public denunciation of China, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, one of the architects of the agreement and veteran player in pontifical diplomacy, assured that ‘a door has been opened that will be difficult to close again.’ The comment was made while presenting a new book about China, during which he also alluded to the continuity of the previous year’s agreement.
Celli’s presentation took place as part of a public encounter to celebrate the first anniversary of the agreement with the Chinese government, an event at which the first secretary of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Rome participated, a noteworthy way of endorsing the pact’s validity.
In Monsignor Celli’s opinion, ‘For the first time in seventy years, all the bishops in China are in communion with the successor of Peter and with their other brothers in the episcopate.’ It is a historical milestone, regardless of the consequences—positive or negative—that are to come of it.
The Amazon Synod
From 6-27 October 2019, the Pope gathered bishops, indigenous leaders and experts to give a push to the Christian presence in the Amazon.
Two years earlier, when the Pope announced the future Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, he had already explained that he wanted ‘to identify new paths for the evangelization of this segment of the People of God, especially the indigenous peoples, often forgotten and without the prospect of a peaceful future, also due to the crisis of the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of paramount importance for our planet.’
The synod lasted three weeks and 210 people participated, with 185 of those having the right to vote; of these, 113 were bishops hailing from the Amazon. At the meeting’s close, the Pope asked that the evaluation of the results not be limited to proposals made on ‘the disciplinary issue.’ He also asked society to ‘take on the diagnosis that we have made.’
The synod is a consultative body of the Pope and has no decision-making power, and therefore it concluded with a list of proposals for the pontiff.
A disciplinary question that was proposed at the conclusion of the Synod, and which occupied a principal place in the synod’s news coverage, was, ‘to ordain as priests suitable and respected men of the community with a legitimately constituted and stable family, who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive an adequate formation for the priesthood, in order to sustain the life of the Christian community through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments in the most remote areas of the Amazon region.’
The proposal to ordain married men who meet certain conditions was supported by 128 of the 181 Synod fathers involved: more than two thirds of the total. At the same time, the participants reaffirmed ‘celibacy as a gift of God’ for the Church.
The synod proposed the reopening of a commission of study on the female diaconate (a measure supported by 137 participants and rejected by 30), as well as the establishment of a new ministry called ‘women community leadership’ (160 supporters, 11 not).
With 140 in favor and 29 against, the establishment of a proper liturgical rite for the Amazonian peoples ‘that expresses the liturgical, theological, disciplinary and spiritual patrimony’ of the region was also proposed.
The Pope insisted that such proposals be understood in the light of the fourfold diagnosis of the situation in the Amazon offered by the Synod’s final document: cultural, social, pastoral and ecological.
Francis said he hoped to publish a magisterial document based on these conclusions and proposals, in which he will probably pronounce on the matter.
For the Pope, the humanitarian and ecological crisis in the Amazon is a reflection of the globalization of indifference.
The Amazon is the second most vulnerable area on the planet, after the Arctic. It covers 8 million square kilometers and 9 countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana.
It provides 20% of the planet’s freshwater in the Atlantic, and is home to 10-15% of terrestrial biodiversity. Today deforestation is between 15 and 20%. If deforestation exceeds 40% or the threshold of 4 °C of warming, the Amazon will not recover.
Between 33 and 35 million people live in the Amazon basin. Of these, 2.8 million are indigenous. They belong to 390 tribes and speak a total 240 languages. Indigenous peoples have been there for centuries and consider their land sacred because their ancestors are buried there.
However, governments authorize large companies to carry out extractive activities in pursuit of gas, oil and gold deposits in those territories. People living in the Amazon denounce being forced to leave the area, often working in deplorable conditions, treated as second-class citizens with no legal protection.
In the presentation of the synod, its general rapporteur, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes said that the great pastoral challenge was ‘the lack of human resources, especially the absence of ordained ministers. 70-80% of the communities within the Brazilian Amazon have a scarcity of sacramental life, apart from baptism and marriage.’ The presence of priests is much greater in the Colombian and Peruvian Amazon.
In any case, the Amazon is also one of the most culturally and geographically remote areas. In order for Christianity to take root there, the Church is looking for missionaries who are willing to live in a very difficult natural environment, with its own cultural categories. The Church seeks to appreciate its traditions and culture, and to transmit the faith without imposing cultural norms.
Throughout the three weeks, the Pope asked—with both gestures and words—that the Catholic Church look at indigenous traditions with respect and without looking to impose, precisely so as to bring them the Gospel. ‘May God preserve us from the greed of new forms of colonialism,’ Francis said at the Synod’s opening Mass.
In the closing ceremony, the Pope noted, ‘In this Synod we have had the grace of listening to the voices of the poor and reflecting on the precariousness of their lives, threatened by predatory models of development.’
His final remarks about the Synod came during the Angelus on 27th October: ‘Each of us must have asked ourselves many times what good might be done in one’s own life. Today is the time; let us ask ourselves: “Me, what can I do that is good for the Gospel?” In the Synod we asked ourselves this question, wishing to open up new paths for the proclamation of the Gospel.’
The Migrant Crisis
The issue of migrants is one that cuts across the entire magisterium of Pope Francis. It is part of his battle in favor of the weakest and against the globalization of indifference.
Francis summarized his view on the migration crisis at the end of January, during the in-flight press conference following World Youth Day in Panama. ‘It is a problem that requires memory, that is, asking oneself if my country is made up of migrants,’ he said, making reference to the origins of Argentina and the United States. He went on to explain that the key is ‘to promote and to integrate (them)’ and that in order to achieve this, the ruler must exercise prudence. For example, ‘Last year, the Swedish said: “Stop for a while because we are not able to complete the process.” This is the prudence of those who govern.’
‘The nations that were more generous in welcoming—they were not as successful under other aspects—were Italy and Greece. Also Turkey, somewhat… Lebanon is wonderfully generous: it has over 1 million Syrians. Jordan, the same,’ the Pope observed.
‘A way of resolving the problem of migrations is to help the countries from where they come. Migrants come because of hunger or war. Investing where there is famine, Europe is capable of doing this, in order to favour growth… But it is a complex problem, of which we must speak without prejudice,’ he concluded.
On the one hand, throughout the year the Pope has tried to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in public opinion, especially in regard to those fleeing Syria and Africa and ending up in the Mediterranean; those crossing Central America to reach the United States; and the Rohingya in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, the Pope has also encouraged international actors to find ways to welcome these people.
Inevitably, the international press reads these gestures as a response to the ‘populist’ or ‘protectionist’ policies of US President, Donald Trump; Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro; and former Italian Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini.
This view dominated interpretations of the Pope’s words to the diplomatic corps at the beginning of the year, during which he said: ‘All human beings long for a better and more prosperous life, and the challenge of migration cannot be met with a mindset of violence and indifference, nor by offering merely partial solutions.’ The media also applied this interpretation to the Pope’s appeals on behalf of migrants drifting in the Mediterranean.
For example, in one of his first Angelus addresses of 2019, he stated, ‘For quite a few days, 49 people rescued in the Mediterranean Sea have been aboard two NGO ships, seeking a safe port to disembark. I address a heartfelt appeal to European leaders, that they demonstrate concrete solidarity with these people.’
Also in the 29th July Angelus, he lamented that 150 people had drowned on Libyan shores while trying to reach Europe. He then called on ‘the international community to act quickly and decisively to avoid that such tragedies are repeated and to guarantee the safety and dignity of everyone. I invite you to pray with me for the victims and their families and also, to ask from the heart, “Father, why?”’
In late June, the Vatican noted that ‘with immense sadness’, Pope Francis had seen the photo of the father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande as they tried to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. Francis was ‘deeply hurt by their deaths, he prays for them and for all the migrants who have lost their lives trying to escape war and misery,’ wrote his spokesman.
Francis asked that the pain behind these statistics not be kept hidden, and to put a name and a story to each tragedy. For this reason, he has convened three Papal masses and at least two specific meetings during his travels to denounce concrete situations.
In March, when he travelled to Rabat (Morocco), he visited the headquarters of Caritas, which helps some 4,000 young Africans who are trying to reach Europe. He said that we cannot remain silent in the face of the injustices suffered by migrants and refugees, which is ‘all the more the case today, when we witness many millions of refugees and other forced migrants seeking international protection, to say nothing of the victims of human trafficking and the new forms of enslavement being perpetrated by criminal organizations. No one can be indifferent to this painful situation.’
The Pope also lamented that the dignity of these people depended on their legal status and strongly criticized policies of mass expulsion of immigrants. ‘Forms of collective expulsion, which do not allow for the suitable treatment of individual cases, are unacceptable. On the other hand, special legalization strategies, especially in the case of families and minors, should be encouraged and simplified,’ he stated.
In May, on his trip to Bulgaria, he visited an abandoned school converted into a refugee centre in Vrazhdebna, Rakovsky. ‘There is always hope. Today, the world of migrants and refugees is something of a cross, a cross for humanity, and a cross that so many people suffer from,’ he told them.
In February he went to Sacrofano, about 30 km from Rome, where he celebrated a Mass for those participating in the congress ‘Free from Fear’, dedicated to groups that take in refugees.
‘Free from fear. Fear is the beginning of slavery: the Israelites preferred to be slaves out of fear. And it is also the beginning of every dictatorship,’ the Pope said in the homily. ‘A sign of distrust, this self-enclosure increases our fear towards “others”, towards strangers, towards the marginalized, towards outsiders. But they are the privileged of the Lord, as Matthew 25 says. And this is particularly noticeable today, with the arrival of migrants and refugees knocking at our door in search of protection, security and a better future.’
The second ceremony was held in St. Peter’s on 8th July, on the anniversary of his first trip out of Rome to the island of Lampedusa. The ceremony took place behind closed doors and was attended by some 250 people including migrants, refugees and volunteers.
‘These least ones are abandoned and cheated into dying in the desert; these least ones are tortured, abused and violated in detention camps; these least ones face the waves of an unforgiving sea; these least ones are left in reception camps too long for them to be called temporary. These are only some of the least ones who Jesus asks us to love and raise up,’ said Francis.
‘They are persons; these are not mere social or migrant issues! “This is not just about migrants”, in the twofold sense that migrants are first of all human persons, and that they are the symbol of all those rejected by today’s globalized society.’ he added.
The third ceremony was held in St. Peter’s Square on 29 September, during the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
‘We cannot remain insensitive, our hearts deadened, before the misery of so many innocent people. We must not fail to weep. We must not fail to respond,’ he insisted.
To conclude the World Day, Francis inaugurated an imposing statue in the same square, which will remain there for a few months. It is called ‘Angels Unaware’, which evokes a passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.’ It offers a life-size depiction of 140 migrants from different cultures, traveling together on the same boat.
For Francis, the question of migrants is not only a political issue but also a religious one. ‘You know well from experience that for Christians, “it is not just about migrants,” for it is Christ himself who knocks on our doors,’ he said when he visited the Caritas headquarters in Rabat (Morocco).
He also mentioned them during the traditional Stations of the Cross on Good Friday at the Colosseum. ‘Where are the new Cyreneans of the third millennium? (…) May their [Our Blessed Mother’s and the other holy women’s] example inspire in us a commitment to stand by all those dying today on Calvaries throughout the world: in transit camps, on boats denied entry to safe ports, in shelters, hot spots, and camps for seasonal workers, amid protracted negotiations about their final destination.’
At the same time, the Pope also addressed some aspects of the issue from a sociological and cultural point of view. In May, he brought it up with the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which analyzed the concept of ‘Nation’ at their annual meeting.
The Pope used the occasion to lament that some nationalist policies are damaging cooperation between nations, and called for ways for countries to welcome, protect, promote and integrate migrants, rather than seeing them as a threat. ‘In this way, migrants can present themselves and be recognized as an opportunity to enrich the people that integrate them … The way in which a nation welcomes migrants reveals its vision of human dignity and of its relationship with humanity.’
With the title ‘It is not just about migrants’, the Pope’s message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2019, invited Catholics to reflect on the drama of the 260 million migrants around the world.
‘Today’s world is increasingly becoming more elitist and cruel towards the excluded,’ the Pope lamented, adding that, ‘the cause of migrants that is at stake… is not just about them, but about all of us, and about the present and future of the human family.’
It also says that the situation of migrants cannot be confronted as if it were an isolated problem, because it involves everyone. That is why the Pope proposed the abandonment of a consumerist and accelerated mentality that prevents us from appreciating the value of people.
Together with the migration crisis, the Pope has also denounced the drama of human trafficking, of which migrants are often victims. For this reason, he promoted the celebration of the Day of Prayer and Reflection against Trafficking in Persons on 8th February, and offered Vatican presence to institutions that act against this scourge.
The ‘Formal’Reform of the Curia Already Has a Structure
For the past six years, the Pope has periodically brought together a small group of cardinals (first nine, now six) to plan the reform of the Roman Curia. A draft of a document is already in episcopal conferences around the world and the final version was expected in the last months of 2019. The essential objective is that all the dicasteries and organizations of the Holy See be more oriented towards service to the dioceses instead of internal management. That is why the apostolic constitution that will bring it to effect is called Praedicate Evangelium or ‘Preach the Gospel’.
The Pope’s motto is to structure the curia for a Church that ‘goes forth’ and that is more attentive to preaching the Gospel. But how is this principle going to be put into practice?
In the first place, by giving priority in the Vatican hierarchy to a dicastery for evangelization, which will rank second in importance within the Holy See—instead of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—just behind the Secretariat of State, the executive arm of the Pope’s initiatives.
In the version currently in the correction phase, this new Dicastery for Evangelization would have two main departments. One would focus on the fundamental questions of our time, the key arguments that the Church must prioritize and defend. The second would be focused on helping and supporting dioceses around the world in their apostolic work.
This change seems to demonstrate almost graphically the missionary and evangelizing interest of Francis’ pontificate, a sort of prioritization of reaching the peripheries ahead of safeguarding doctrinal orthodoxy. At least in terms of the final structure, disciplinary and internal aspects seem to take a second place, though they are not ignored.
Another novelty of the new structure will be the creation of the ‘Dicastery for Charity’. It is a move to give more precedence to what for years has been called ‘Vatican Almsgiving’. This department deals directly with works of charity and assistance to needy people in the Vatican environment. Today it is presided over by Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, famous for reactivating an energy generator in an occupied building in Rome to provide energy and heating to hundreds of poor immigrants.
The Constitution Praedicate Evangelium cites the need to decentralize power among its organizing principles. It means, for example, giving more autonomy to dioceses to resolve particular questions without having to turn to the Holy See or to specify the application of norms that best correspond to the evangelization of their territory.
Another novelty is that it expresses in writing the need to enrich the Roman Curia with a greater presence of laity and women. It is a reality that has already begun to be put into practice. The prefect of the Dicastery of Communication, Paolo Ruffini, is a lay person and the father of a family. The person with the most employees in the Vatican is the director of the Vatican Museums, Barbara Jatta, also a lay person and a mother.
Another challenge for the Curia lies in reflecting the Church’s universality. During the pontificate of John Paul II, much progress was made in this direction. But there are still Vatican organizations in which the great majority of employees are Italian, with a local and self-referential mentality rather than a global one.
Much of the Curia reform reflects what the Pope has put into practice in recent years. But, as he himself has said, no one should expect a radical change in the Vatican when this new constitution is approved. The only reform that can achieve that is a reform of the heart, the Pope says, since it is the same people who must adapt to new times, reinforcing their vocation of service to the whole Church.