On brink of US vote, Pope suggests politics isn’t the whole show

As reflected in his Saturday address to a world meeting of popular movements, Pope Francis appears to have more faith in bottom-up change than top-down, and believes that when facing a dysfunctional political system, there’s often greater promise in working around it than through it.

Vatican-watchers are forever attentive to small alterations in papal protocol, pecking order and comportment, which may signal larger shifts in any given pope’s agenda and view of the world.

There have been so many such mutations under Pope Francis it’s hard to keep track, but here’s one: His by-now annual speech to the World Meeting of Popular Movements clearly has replaced the pontiff’s talk to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican in January as his most important political address of the year.

The most recent such address came on Saturday, in Francis’s third appointment with this annual gathering promoted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which brought together some 200 leaders of 92 movements from around the world, including anti-mafia campaigns, anti-human trafficking networks, environmental groups, activist organizations for the homeless and landless, trade unions, and many others.

For one thing, the pope’s speech to this group typically has been longer than his talk to diplomats – Saturday’s address by Pope Francis ran to 4,500 words, seven full pages in the version released by the Vatican Press Office.

It’s a time-honored principle in Italy that the length of a speech is directly proportional to how seriously the speaker takes the gathering (the Gettysburg address, all 272 words of it, would never have worked in this culture), and so by that standard alone, Francis is clearly signaling his priorities.

More to the point, his three speeches to diplomats so far have been largely formulaic and seemingly crafted mostly by the team in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, reflecting more or less the corporate diplomatic tradition of the Holy See.

The speeches to popular movements, however, have been “all Bergoglio,” referring to the pope’s given name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. They’re this pope at his most passionate and populist, imbued with his own personal vision and experience.

On Saturday, for instance, Francis made headlines by complaining that “scandalous sums” are laid out to save banks from bankruptcy, but similar investments don’t seem to be forthcoming to address the “bankruptcy of humanity” represented by poverty, conflict, environmental devastation, and other maladies that affect ordinary people.

Here are some other snippets.

Immigrants and refugees

“Citizens who still retain some rights are tempted by the false security of physical or social walls. Walls that enclose some and banish others. Walled citizens, terrified, on one side; excluded, exiled, still more terrified citizens on the other. Is that the life that our Father God wants for their children?”

Violence and conflict

“Fear, besides being a good deal for merchants of arms and death, weakens us, unbalances us, destroys our psychological and spiritual defenses, and anesthetizes us to the suffering of others and, in the end, makes us cruel. When we hear about celebrations for the death of a young man who may have lost his way, when we see that war is preferred to peace, when we see that xenophobia is widespread, when we find that intolerant proposals are gaining ground; behind the cruelty that seems to prevail is the cold breath of fear. … Mercy is not easy, not easy…it requires courage. Jesus tells us: ‘Do not be afraid,’ because mercy is the best antidote to fear. It is much better than antidepressants and anxiolytics. It’s much more effective than walls, gates, alarms, and weapons. And it is free: it is a gift from God.”

Terrorism and money

“I said recently there’s a basic terrorism that derives from the global control of money over the earth and threatens all humanity. The various derivative terrorisms, such as narco-terrorism, the terrorism of the state, and those forms erroneously called ethnic and religious, all feed off this basic terrorism. No people, no religion is terroristic! It’s true, there are small fundamentalist groups on all sides. But terrorism begins when ‘you throw away the marvel of creation, man and woman, and put money in their place.’ Such a system is terroristic.”

First of all, despite some spin in the American media, let’s be clear: None of this is exclusively, or even primarily, directed at the United States. The bit about walls, for instance, reflects the fact that walls are being built these days all over the world, both by guns and by barbed wire and concrete, and some places, such as Aleppo in Syria, face far more dramatic situations of isolation and abandonment than anything even hypothetically being discussed in this country.

Americans need to face a sobering reality, which is that the pope has a global responsibility, and most of the time we’re just not the first thing he thinks about when he gets out of bed in the morning.

That said, these are clearly political messages, or, at the very least, they have obvious political implications. So, why would Pope Francis pour so much more of himself into delivering them to popular movements rather than actual politicians?

Perhaps the answer comes in this line from Saturday’s speech: “In these times of paralysis, disorientation and destructive proposals, the active participation of the people seeking the common good can overcome, with God’s help, the false prophets who exploit the fear and hopelessness, that sell magic formulas of hate and cruelty or a selfish welfare and an illusory security.”

To decode a bit, “the people” means the kind of popular movements gathered in Rome last week at the Pontifical International Maria Mater Ecclesiae College; the “false prophets” means, at least in part, politicians.

In other words, Francis simply appears to have more faith in bottom-up change than top-down, and believes that when facing a dysfunctional political system, there’s often greater promise in working around it than through it.

Even if the pope’s speech wasn’t really about us, Americans standing on the brink of what many regard as one of the most dispiriting and uninspiring elections in our national history may nevertheless find a ray of hope here. The basic message of Pope Francis would seem to be that formal exercises in politics, while important, are not the whole ball game, and that even when politics lets us down, that’s not the end of the story.

In other words, no matter what happens Tuesday, the pope is telling us we’re not out of options.

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