Pope Francis in Africa

by Michael Sean Winters

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The Holy Father’s trip to Africa fit the pattern of his previous trips, except it seemed that pattern was on steroids. This was Francis to the nth degree and it was electric.

My colleague Josh McElwee, whose reporting was extraordinary all week, captured the unique nature of this trip, especially its last leg in the Central African Republic, describing the anxiety of the pope’s entourage and the press corps, surrounded by UN soldiers with AK-47s, mindful that people were being killed for their religion even while the pope was there, and there, in the middle of all this fraught tension, is Pope Francis, cool as a cucumber. He reportedly joked to the pilot that if the unrest was such that it was unsafe to land the plane, the pope wanted a parachute. He was determined to go to this war zone, and confront this violence.

All recent pope’s have made inter-religious dialogue a part of their itinerary, both on these pastoral visits and while in Rome. But, going to a mosque, in a neighborhood where it would normally be unsafe for a Christian to enter, the easy manner with the imam, all showed this pope’s ability to connect with people which, in turn, makes his message more likely to be heard. And what a message: “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters! We must therefore consider ourselves and conduct ourselves as such!” he told some 200 Muslim men at the meeting, as McElwee reported. “Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace! Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself -- God is peace, salam.”

The violence in the Central African Republic did not start as religious violence, but religion can be put to good use by those will evil intentions. Before there was the Holocaust, there were the Nuremburg laws, and before the Nuremberg laws, there was the propaganda aimed at de-humanizing the Jews, and before the propaganda, there was the long, sometimes latent, sometimes overt, history of anti-Semitism. The Holy Father not only wants to stand athwart the violence in an immediate way, although he certainly wants to do that - and, indeed, did do that while visiting Bangui -  he also wants us all to examine the roots of violence and how religion can and should confront it, not further it.

This pope makes visiting the poor a central part of his pastoral visits. Indeed, it is when Francis is in a favela or at Catholic Charities or in a prison that he seems to come alive. The contrast between his warm smile while walking through a slum and the dour expression on his face while standing at a formal airport welcoming ceremony tells you all you need to know about the man’s priorities. Still, the visit to the slums of Nairobi was remarkable. It is not just that the slum seemed so poor and so destitute. It was that the mud quickly caked the pope’s shoes, and then splattered his white cassock, and he seemed not to notice or care. In these visits, you see that he is entering into communion, not only with the poor people he is meeting, but with Christ. It is prayerful, but exuberantly so, especially in Africa where the Church is still young and the faith is still joy-filled in a way we tired, older Churches in the West can only imagine.  

Pope Francis did not meet with the bishops as a group during this trip. “They must be doing a good job,” an op told me. The video of the bishops joining a conga line as they waited for the pope to come into a stadium showed that same exuberance on display among the faithful throughout the trip.

On the flight back, a German reporter asked Francis about the use of condoms to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Depending on the translation, the pope began his reply by saying the question was “biased” or “small.” Here is the transcript of his reply:

The question seems biased to me. Yes, it is one of the methods, the morality of the Church faces a bit of a predicament here. The fifth or the sixth commandment: defend life or a sexual relationship that is open to life. But this is not the problem. There is a greater problem than this: this question makes me think of the question they once asked Jesus: tell me Master, is it acceptable to heal on a Saturday? Healing is obligatory! Malnutrition, exploitation, slave labour, the lack of drinking water, these are the problems. We’re not talking about which plaster we should use for which wound. The great injustice is social injustice, the great injustice is malnutrition. I don’t like making such casuistic reflections when there are people dying because of a lack of water and hunger. Think about arms trafficking. When these problems cease to exist, then I think we can ask ourselves the question: is it acceptable to heal on a Saturday? Why are arms still being manufactured? Wars are the leading cause of death. Forget about whether it is acceptable or not to heal on a Saturday. Make justice and when everyone is healed, when there is no injustice in this world, then we can talk about Saturday. 

There are certain left-of-center RCs who will not be very happy with this answer: They would have preferred the Holy Father throw out the Church’s long reflection on the sixth commandment. But, I think his answer displays not only a certain wiliness, unwilling to be pigeon-holed, but that the pope is again asking us to focus less on people’s sexual practices and more on their abysmal living conditions. He wants us to be as offended by the gross poverty in our world as by the sexual misdeeds of others. While that element of the leftie Catholic chorus that insists on mimicking the right in their focus on pelvic issues, there are many, many more leftie Catholics who are thrilled to have a pope that insists the Church’s social doctrine is as important as its sexual ethics.  

The pope’s reply to the condom questions has already caused some agita in the anticipated conservative parts of the blogosphere. “He is confusing” is the most charitable thing they have to say, but I do not think this is confusing at all. In the event, I equally admired Pope Benedict’s answer to a similar question in which he said that, yes, there were instances in which the use of condoms could be evidence of a person acting in a more moral fashion. I do not recall the conservative blogosphere calling Papa Ratiznger a heretic! Of course, they also did not like his comments on fundamentalism, but me thinks he is spot-on: “Fundamentalism is a disease that exists in all religions,” the pope said. “In the Catholic Church we have some – many – who believe they possess the absolute truth and they go on sullying others through slander and defamation and this is wrong. I say this because it is my Church. Religious fundamentalism must be combated. It is not religious, God is lacking, it is a kind of idolatry.

The Holy Father’s trip got little coverage here in the U.S. The mainstream press corps does not spill much ink on Africa in any event. But, clearly, the continent is on the Vatican’s radar screen and it should be on ours. The problems the continent faces are real and some of those can be ameliorated if we spent less money on weapons and more money on development. A commitment to the development of moderate Islamic institutions is necessary if Africa is to avoid further radicalization of its population. And, as Africa develops, surely financing should be made available to help these countries pursue economic growth that is not dependent on fossil fuels.

More than all this, however, but related to all of it, youthful vigor in an ancient Church is something wonderful to behold. Pope Francis seems to ignite the best elements of that vigor and direct them in ways that are good for the Church but also for the common good. I hope this will not be his last visit to Africa and it is pretty obvious that the people there hope so too.


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