Papal trips are important for many reasons, including their geopolitical significance, their meaning for relations with other Christian churches and other faiths, their impact on the local Catholic community, and the media coverage they generate.
As a result, foreign trips are among the events every year in which a pope invests the most of himself – the most time preparing speeches and gestures, the most energy in thinking about the messages he wants to convey, and so on.
All this means there’s another level of interpretation every time a pope hits the road, which is what the outing reveals about his own personality and priorities.
In that light, it’s worth asking what Pope Francis’ June 24-26 trip to Armenia tells us about the pontiff himself. Surveying everything that happened, three conclusions suggest themselves.
From the beginning, it’s been striking how often Pope Francis, when pressed to explain a particular statement or policy choice, will invoke his background in Argentina.
There are really too many examples to count, but just to choose one almost at random, in a session with priests from the diocese of Rome earlier this month, Francis stirred controversy by suggesting there are cases in which it’s better for couples to live together for a while rather than take part in a shotgun wedding.
“Here’s a social fact in Buenos Aires,” he said. “I prohibited religious marriages in Buenos Aires in cases of what we call matrimonios de apuro, meaning ‘in a hurry,’ when a baby is on the way.”
In fact, Francis cited his experience in Buenos Aires no fewer than five times in that address to priests, on multiple topics.
The same point emerged on the Armenia trip, especially in the press conference he held on the papal plane on his return. Francis cited Argentina on three separate points:
- To explain his choice to add the word “genocide” to a speech on Friday about the massacres suffered by Armenians in 1915 at the hands of Ottoman Turks, saying that in Argentina that’s just the word used and that “I brought it with me to Rome.”
- Joking about the furor around his decision to create a commission to study women deacons, he cited a former Argentine president who liked to say that if you don’t know how to resolve a problem, “create a commission.”
- Explaining why he believes gays aren’t the only group that deserves an apology from Christians, he cited his experience as a child in Buenos Aires, when “you couldn’t enter the house of a divorced family.”
All this is quite natural, because not only is Argentina the pontiff’s home, but he was legendary for not liking to travel outside it. He spent only small stretches of his life abroad prior to being elected pope, so inevitably his points of reference are going to be mostly drawn from his domestic experience.
In other words, if you want to understand the mind and heart of this pope, then Argentina is the place to go.
Serious about the Orthodox
Ecumenism, meaning the press for Christian unity, has been a corporate commitment of the Catholic Church for the last fifty years, and every recent pope has tried to move the ball with various denominations and movements in the Christian world.
While all have regarded closer ties with the Orthodox as a priority, since the rupture between East and West in 1054 is the primordial schism, in the abstract one might not think it would be a personal passion for Francis. After all, Orthodox are often known for precisely the sort of doctrinal “rigidity” that’s a bête noire for this pope, and they also generally have a formalistic liturgical approach that’s not really his style.
Yet it’s become clear that Francis is genuinely committed to outreach to the Orthodox world.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was also the ordinary for Eastern Catholics in Argentina, who didn’t have their own prelate, and he had close ties with Orthodox leaders in the country.
Since his election, he’s made Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople a valued friend and partner on multiple fronts – recently, a senior Orthodox cleric told Crux that they too joke that Francis and Bartholomew are virtually “BFF’s.” Francis also engineered an historic encounter with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba.
In Armenia, the ecumenical overtones of the visit were overwhelming. Francis stayed in the Apostolic Palace of Karekin II, the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of six Oriental Orthodox churches, and the two men did absolutely everything together.
“We have met, we have embraced as brothers, we have prayed together and shared the gifts, hopes and concerns of the Church of Christ,” Francis told Karekin on Sunday, after taking part in an Orthodox Divine Liturgy staged at the headquarters of the Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin.
“We have felt as one her beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one,” he said.
Watching Francis’s body language throughout the trip, it seemed clear he was moved by the experience.
In addition, Francis ended the trip by providing a positive review of the recent “Holy and Great Council” of the Eastern Orthodox churches, which took a major blow when the Russian Orthodox and three other churches pulled out.
In his in-flight press conference on the way back to Rome, Francis nevertheless called it a “step forward.”
“They were able to look one another in the face, to pray together and to talk, and maybe there will be some results,” he said. “That’s positive.”
The bottom line is that when it comes to the Catholic/Orthodox relationship, Francis isn’t just phoning it in – he means it.
Francis the Mule
Despite his well-earned reputation for humility and simplicity, there’s another aspect to the personality of Pope Francis that’s a bit less commented upon, to wit: He can also be stubborn as a mule when he’s made up his mind about something.
His Armenia trip began and ended with reminders of the point.
During a liturgy in Rome in April 2015 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the slaughter of Armenians during World War I, Francis used the term “genocide” to describe it, triggering Turkey to withdraw its ambassador and issue a diplomatic protest.
In the run-up to this trip, Vatican officials seemed to play down expectations that Francis would use that vocabulary again. At a briefing ahead of the trip, spokesman Father Federico Lombardi insisted that one doesn’t have to use that word every time, and Francis himself recently said he prefers the term “martyrdom” to describe the current suffering of Christians in the Middle East.
When copies of Francis’ speeches for Friday were distributed to journalists in advance, the word “genocide” never appeared, yet addressing politicians and diplomats, the pope went ahead and dropped it in, referring to “that genocide.”
On the papal plane on the way back to Rome, Francis said he thought it would have been “very strange” to come to Armenia and not use the term.
Of course, he had to know it wouldn’t go down well in Turkey, another country he has visited and one with clear inter-faith and strategic importance for the Vatican. Swiftly, the country’s deputy prime minister accused Francis of exhibiting a “crusader mentality,” and an official of the foreign ministry charged that the pontiff’s language will complicate peace efforts in the region.
Obviously, however, Francis decided he was going to do it anyway.
At the end of the trip, the pontiff conducted another one of his now-famous in-flight news conferences, in this case stretching out over almost a full hour.
Once again, he certainly knows there’s a burgeoning body of criticism in some Catholic circles of these spontaneous papal sessions. Critics say Francis talks too much, especially in off-the-cuff settings when he’s prone to say things that stir controversy and, sometimes, confusion about where the pope and the Church stand on various matters.
There have been several clear for-instances lately, including a remark that the “vast majority” of sacramental marriages these days are null because couples don’t understand what a lifetime commitment means, and his comment about how living together is sometimes better than a marriage in haste because of a pregnancy.
In that context, it would have been understandable if Francis were a bit restrained and discreet, not wanting to talk to journalists for long, and perhaps imposing limits on the kinds of questions he would answer.
Instead, there he was, letting it all hang out on a staggering range of topics – apologies to gays, Brexit, Martin Luther, women deacons, Pope Benedict XVI, the Orthodox council, and beyond. Once again, his comments became the Catholic topic du jour, with some cheering the pontiff and others caustically suggesting he should put a sock in it.
Other public figures might decide they just don’t need the heartburn, or that such ferment is a distraction from their agenda, but clearly Francis has made the decision that he’s not going to be muzzled.
Once again, in other words, this is a pope determined to do it his own way.