ROME – In the 2013 conclave, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was considered a long shot and yet emerged as Pope Francis. Today he had the opposite experience, going into the announcement of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize considered a front-runner and yet finishing as an also-ran.
The award instead went to Indian Kailash Satyarthi and Pakistani Malala Yousafzay, with the Nobel committee citing their struggles on behalf of children’s rights, especially the right to education.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee cited the two “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”
Malala, 17, is the youngest ever winner of a Nobel Prize. A schoolgirl and education campaigner in Pakistan, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman two years ago.
Satyarthi, 60, has maintained the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and headed various forms of peaceful protests, “focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain,” the Nobel committee said.
The Nobel Committee said it “regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”
Although the committee never officially reveals the reasons why it did not choose someone, many observers believe Francis’s candidacy may have suffered from lingering embarrassment some Nobel personnel feel over bestowing the honor on US President Barack Obama in 2009, before Obama had accomplished anything substantive.
In that light, experts say the Nobel committee may be cautious about perceptions of honoring world leaders too early in their terms of office.
It’s also possible that Francis may have complicated efforts to honor him as a peacemaker by recent comments apparently approving military strikes against the self-declared ISIS caliphate in Iraq.
During comments to reporters in August, the pontiff said it is “legitimate” to use force to stop an “unjust aggressor,” though he applied a series of qualifications, including a preference for non-military solutions and for international approval of any action.
Despite not winning, Francis was under serious consideration for the Nobel Prize because of perceptions that during the first 18 months of his reign, he has revived the political and diplomatic capital of the Vatican.
“Francis is not resigned to a passive vision of world affairs,” said Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic organization active in conflict resolution and peace brokering, in a 2014 interview.
“We must prepare for a new age of political audacity for the Holy See,” Impagliazzo said.
Francis’s aspiration to serve as a “peace pope” has been clear in multiple ways.
In August 2013, for instance, Western leaders began trying to shape a favorable climate of public opinion for the use of military force in Syria to try to remove President Bashar al-Assad following an alleged use of chemical weapons.
In response, Francis deployed the church’s political and spiritual resources to prevent widening the Syrian conflict.
The pope called a global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, inviting the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, as well as all women and men of good will, to join him. He also wrote a strong letter opposing a use of force to Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the time the chair of the G20 group of nations.
Putin cited the pope’s letter during a G20 meeting in September 2013, telling his fellow heads of state that “we might listen to the pope.”
In 2014, Francis waded into one of the longest-running conflicts in the world during his May 24-26 trip to the Middle East, including stops in Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and Israel.
He signaled his intention to be a bridge-builder in multiple ways on that trip, including becoming the first pope ever to include both a Jewish and a Muslim leader in his official delegation. Francis invited Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, a lay Islamic leader, to join him, both old friends from Argentina.
On May 25, Francis issued a surprise invitation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and then-President Shimon Peres of Israel to join him for a prayer for peace “in my house,” meaning the Vatican. Both leaders quickly accepted, and the event was set for June 8 in the Vatican gardens.
That night, Francis’s message was brief but forceful.
“Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare,” he said. Only the tenacious, he argued, “say yes to encounter and no to conflict; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities; yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation.”
The prayer did not have any immediate effect, as a new conflict between Israel and Hamas on the Gaza strip broke out shortly afterwards. Yet Francis insisted that it “opened a door” that “remains open.”
Peres seemed to concur. In early September 2014, not long after he stepped down as the Israeli president, he traveled to Rome to propose that Pope Francis launch a “United Nations” of world religions, saying “he’s truly the only one who can lead this project.”
By now, Francis seems to have worked out a distinct template for how he wants to act as a peacemaker in conflict situations.
First, Francis acts in a uniquely spiritual fashion. He wants to rely on the resources of faith — prayer and fasting, invocations of the sacred texts of the world’s great religions, and popular devotions and religious observances.
In his eyes, this is not only the appropriate way for the pope to exert his influence, but it’s also good politics since many of the world’s bloodiest conflicts have a religious subtext.
Second, Francis is willing to roll the dice when caution might counsel restraint. In an interview with the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia shortly after the June 8 peace prayer with Abbas and Peres, Francis revealed that “99 percent” of his aides in the Vatican were opposed to the idea when he first discussed his plans.
Third, Francis has pioneered a brand of diplomacy premised on personal relationships.
Francis felt emboldened to invite Peres and Abbas because he had established a rapport with both leaders during previous encounters in the Vatican. He’s set up Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople as his geo-political partner not just because he’s a prominent Orthodox leader, but because there’s obvious good feeling between the two men.
In the future, it’s reasonable to expect that Francis will pick his spots in terms of where to deploy his political capital in part based on where he’s developed personal ties.
Today’s decision to give the honor to someone other than the pope is not the first time a pontiff has been overlooked for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The late Pope John Paul II was often nominated as a candidate but never won, despite his role in liberating Eastern Europe from Communism and reaching out to the followers of other religions.
A former member of the Nobel Prize committee, Lutheran Bishop Gunnar Staalseth of Oslo, Norway, publicly vowed in 2001 that no pope would win the award until the Catholic Church changed its teaching on contraception, which he insisted “favors life rather than death.”
In that light, some observers had said that if Francis won, it would have marked a kind of détente between the Vatican and one of the secular world’s most important centers of moral authority.
Back in July in an interview with an Argentinian magazine, Francis said he wasn’t overly concerned with winning the Nobel Prize, which comes with a $1 million cash award.
“The topic is not even on my agenda,” Francis said.
“I’ve never accepted honorary titles. I don’t really think about those things, and even less about what I might do with that money,” he said. “Regardless of any award, I believe we should all be committed to global peace.”
Inés San Martín contributed to this report.