Pope Francis’ most recent airborne news conference, held coming back from Manila on Monday, was another sensation. It generated a couple of instant classic sound-bites, including why Catholics don’t have to “breed like rabbits” and his wish to kick a couple of corrupt bureaucrats “where the sun doesn’t shine.”
There were two other tidbits, however, that have been somewhat lost in the shuffle, both of which are important for understanding what is more and more a defining trait of this pope — his sense of urgency.
One of those nuggets is about a book; the other, a trip.
As he has before, Francis went out of his way to invoke an apocalyptic 1907 novel by an English convert from Anglicanism called “Lord of the World.” The novel lays out a dystopic vision of a final conflict between secular humanism and Catholicism, with the showdown taking place on the fields of Armageddon.
Author Robert Hugh Benson depicts a world in which Marxism and secularism have run the table, culminating in a charismatic “savior” figure, increasingly recognizable as the Anti-Christ, who arises to lead a one-world government. Attacks on Christian symbols and believers mount, and euthanasia is widely practiced.
Francis first praised the novel back in November 2013, in the context of a homily in which he denounced what he called “adolescent progressivism.” He returned to “Lord of the World” in the recent airplane news conference, saying, “I advise you to read it” because it explains what he meant by a reference to “ideological colonization” during a session with 20,000 Filipino families in Manila.
Some find the novel prescient, others a little ‘out there.’ For analytical purposes, the important thing is its keen sense that the world is reaching a turning point and there’s not much time left to set things right.
That’s not to say Francis believes doomsday is around the corner. However, his fondness for the novel seems to track with his belief that humanity is making some definitive choices today, from the economy to the environment, and that if we get those choices wrong, the consequences may be far worse than we realize.
All of which brings us to a second striking bit from Monday’s news conference, which was Francis’ overview of his pending travel schedule.
Aside from his September visit to the United States, Francis said he also plans to visit three Latin American nations this year — Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay — and three more next year, including Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, with Peru probably being slotted in to one of those trips as well.
The pontiff also said he intends to visit two African nations toward the end of 2015, saying they’ll likely be Uganda and the Central African Republic.
That’s an ambitious set of plans, with his intention to go to the Central African Republic standing out as especially audacious.
The country is still an active war zone, with the conflict to some extent breaking down along Muslim/Christian lines. Because of the violence, the Central African Republic is currently under a United Nations Security Council ban on travel, which was recently extended through the end of January 2016.
Francis technically wouldn’t be in violation should he arrive in November or December, as he hinted, since the ban contains an exemption for “religious obligation.” One still has to wonder, however, why the pontiff wouldn’t prefer to wait for the shooting to stop.
As in the Philippines last week, when the pope was scheduled to fly into the teeth of a tropical storm in order to visit the survivors of a 2013 super-typhoon, one imagines that aides and security personnel will try to persuade Francis to rethink the outing.
Based on his insistence last week on going ahead anyway, Francis may not be in the mood to wait around.
Since his election two years ago, Francis has launched a whirlwind of initiatives — from Vatican reform to blockbuster documents, from bold diplomatic initiatives to spontaneous meetings and gestures. It sometimes seems as if he’s trying to cram activity that would last most papacies a decade into his first two years, raising the question of why he’s in such a hurry.
Given his repeated references to “Lord of the World,” his rush may not be related only to a hunch that at 78 he’s got limited time, or his knowledge that he was elected on a reform mandate.
Shortly before his retirement last November, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said in a Crux interview that he’d like to ask Francis about his “eschatological vision that the anti-Christ is with us,” and whether that explains the pope’s intense pace.
(In Catholic theology, “eschatology” is the study of the end stages of human life and history, featuring what are sometimes referred to tongue-in-cheek as the “final four” – death, judgment, heaven, and hell.)
“Nobody seems interested in that, but I find it fascinating,” George said. “I hope before I die I’ll have the chance to ask [Francis] how you understand your ministry, when you put the end-times before us as a key.”
In effect, Francis may already have answered George’s question.
Monday’s comment about “Lord of the World” suggest his reply might boil down to: “Yes, Virginia, there’s a devil, an anti-Christ, and an end time … and if we want to avoid the worst of it, we’d better get cracking.”
African Catholics in the line of fire
Speaking of Africa, in recent days Niger has become the latest epicenter of radical Islamic violence.
It’s a country of 17 million in Western Africa that’s overwhelmingly Muslim, where a tiny community of 22,000 Catholics finds itself in the line of fire because of Muslim outrage over the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s mocking depictions of Muhammad.
According to media reports, 15 people have been killed in a wave of recent attacks, with more than 130 injured. Some 45 churches, an orphanage, and a Christian school have been burned down in Niamey, Niger’s capital.
In response to the assaults, all Catholic activity in Niger has been suspended, including celebration of Sunday Mass. Niamey’s Archbishop Michael Cartateguy told Vatican Radio on Thursday that 12 of the country’s 14 Catholic parishes have been completely ransacked.
“Nothing was left; everything was burned down,” Cartateguy said.
The prelate said that Catholics in Niger are having a hard time understanding what’s going on, after years of peaceful coexistence.
“We have nothing against the Muslim community; on the contrary,” Cartateguy said. “Rather, we have to further strengthen the bonds of unity and fraternity we have already built.”
Watching the global outrage and solidarity that followed the Jan. 7 attacks in Paris, some Catholic leaders in Africa have said they’d like to see the same worldwide mobilization on behalf of their victims.
Two weeks ago, 23 people were killed in Nigeria by three female suicide bombers, one reportedly just 10 years old. During the previous week, hundreds of people were reportedly killed as Boko Haram militants captured a town in Nigeria’s Borno state.
Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, located in central Nigeria where Boko Haram is active, has accused the West of expressing far greater outrage over the deaths of 12 people in Paris than thousands in Nigeria and neighboring African nations.
“Do not forget that we are here, that we are suffering, that many people have been killed, that many have become displaced, that they do not have a place to live,” Kaigama said.
He said the victims of Boko Haram need the same spirit of solidarity that the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack have received.
“We need that spirit to be spread around,” Kaigama said. “Not just when [an attack] happens in Europe, but when it happens in Nigeria, in Niger, in Cameroon.”
In a September interview with Crux, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York called on Pope Francis to be as forceful as possible about lending a hand to prelates such as Kaigama.
“Let’s work with Ignatius Kaigama in Jos, because he needs us,” Dolan said. “Support bishops like that who are in tough spots.”
That background makes the pontiff’s desire to visit the Central African Republic all the more dramatic, with armed factions on both sides of the Muslim/Christian divide being accused of war crimes and human rights violations.
The outing offers Francis a chance not only to act as a peacemaker, but to de-legitimize religious extremism and violence no matter where it comes from — including instances in which Christians aren’t just the victims, but also the perpetrators. One leader of a Christian militia in the Central African Republic, for instance, was arrested by UN peacekeepers in January and charged with responsibility for a spree of murders, rapes, and looting.
The urgency of making that point may go a long way toward explaining why Francis wants to make the trip, since as the examples of Niger and Nigeria show, the potential ramifications are hardly limited only to the Central African Republic.
After papal trip, a Filipino cardinal’s star shines
Here’s one final thought about Pope Francis’ Jan. 15-19 stay in the Philippines, which ended with an all-time record for turnout at a papal Mass. An astonishing 6 to 7 million Filipinos are estimated to have defied a tropical storm to attend the pope’s final liturgy.
In addition to its other record-shattering aspects, the trip produced a new candidate for best host of a papal visit ever: Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle, the 57-year-old archbishop of Manila who’s been dubbed the “Asian Francis” because of his philosophical similarities to the Argentinian pontiff.
The outing went well from a logistical point of view, which is no small accomplishment given the vast crowds and the menacing weather, and Tagle deserves some of the credit for making the trains run on time.
Aside from that, Tagle was ubiquitous during the visit, among other things showing up every night for the daily press briefing offered by the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
That’s something hosts in most other venues don’t bother doing, and it afforded Tagle a chance to put out a couple of potential fires. On Friday, for instance, Filipino President Benigno Aquino used his welcoming address to Pope Francis to deliver a fairly blistering attack on the local Filipino bishops, though he exempted Tagle from the indictment, calling him a “kindred spirit.”
Reaction to the speech threatened to become a main story line in the local press, until Tagle issued a reminder in a briefing that Francis would be in town only a couple more days, whereas they’d have plenty of time to talk about Aquino.
That seemed to do the trick, and by Saturday morning discussion of the speech had become more akin to a footnote.
Hosts almost always make a couple of addresses to the pope, one to say hello and another to say goodbye, and generally the speeches are forgotten as soon as they’re pronounced. Tagle, however, used his platform to leave a real impression, which is no mean feat when the ever-riveting Francis is the main attraction.
During a session in the Manila cathedral on Friday, Tagle pointed out that the building had been damaged and destroyed several times over the years, including a 19th-century earthquake and a bombing campaign during World War II.
“This cathedral has been razed to the ground many times, but it refuses to vanish,” Tagle said. “It boldly rises from the ruins — just like the Filipino people.”
Tagle styled the pope’s presence as an antidote to more recent blows, including a typhoon and an earthquake that both struck in 2013.
“Now, as many of our poor people are just beginning to rise from recent natural and human-made calamities, you, Holy Father came to us,” he said. “You bring fire, not to destroy but to purify. You bring an earthquake, not to shatter but to awaken.”
It was stirring stuff, and it seemed to capture the mood of millions of Filipinos.
On Sunday Tagle was at it again, in a farewell to Francis at the enormous public Mass.
He told Francis that as he got ready to leave, “every Filipino wants to go with you.” A vast roar arose from the crowd, and Tagle immediately smiled and added, “Don’t worry, not to Rome.”
Instead, he said, Filipinos want to follow Francis “to the peripheries — to the shanties, to prison cells, to hospitals, to the world of politics, finance, art, sciences, culture, education, and social communications.”
They want to follow Francis to those venues, he said, “to bring the light of Jesus.”
At the end, he led the crowd in chanting a couple of farewell phrases to the pope, and it was palpable from the response that his people were with him, seeing him not simply as a Church bureaucrat but, in a sense, their voice.
Anyone who watched Tagle’s performance probably came away feeling that they were looking at the future of Catholicism in Asia, and perhaps a candidate to play an even greater role in the Church down the line.
One final curiosity on Tagle, merely as a thought exercise.
When Pope John Paul II, a Pole, came to the Philippines in 1995, he drew 5 million, and Francis, an Argentine, drew 6-7 million in 2015. Francis’ number is all the more remarkable given that on the very same day, another 2 million Filipinos turned out in Cebu, on a different island roughly 350 miles away, for a traditional procession in honor of the Santo Niño, or Holy Infant.
Purely hypothetically, imagine that at some future point Tagle is elected pope and schedules a homecoming to the Philippines. He’s already wildly popular, Filipinos are already disposed to show up in huge numbers, and Tagle would be a source of immense national pride as the first Pinoy Pope.
Where do you think Las Vegas would set the over/under for attendance at that Mass?