ROME – Earlier this week I was in Washington, D.C., where among other things I spoke at a media briefing organized by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life about Pope Francis’ Sept. 22-27 trip to the United States.
That outing will be preceded by a three-day stop in Cuba, which is a statement in itself – a tribute to both nations for overcoming their Cold War differences, and also a way of reminding the United States of its responsibilities in its own backyard.
The idea of Thursday’s briefing was to offer a quick-and-dirty guide to things reporters covering the trip should know. I served up two observations about what it’s like to cover Francis on the road, and two answers to frequently asked questions about his US debut.
As a brief media guide to the trip, here’s a summary of what I said.
To begin with, the watchword is “expect the unexpected.”
As I’ve said before, this pope ought to come with a warning label like a pack of cigarettes that reads, “Caution: Predictions are hazardous to your health.”
With Francis, the formal schedule for a given day is a point of departure. He’ll often add impromptu events that turn out to be the day’s biggest headline.
In Sri Lanka in January, he met a Buddhist monk at the airport who invited him to swing by his temple and Francis did so, marking only the second time a pontiff had entered a Buddhist place of worship. In a majority Buddhist nation it was an important gesture, and no one knew it was coming.
This time around, it’s probable that Francis will meet with victims of clerical sexual abuse at some point along the way. He may also decide to drop in on a Jesuit community, or do something else that takes him off-script.
Second bit of advice: Polish your Spanish.
Francis will deliver most speeches in English, except for the United Nations in New York and the beatification of Junipero Serra in Washington, both in Spanish. His real gems, however, come when he goes off the cuff, and that’s likely to come in Spanish. (The only other language he might use would be Italian, but that’s unlikely in the States.)
With Benedict XVI, his prepared texts were the heart of the matter. With Francis, you can always tell when something special is coming if he says, “I have a speech with me, but in this moment I’d like to speak to you from my heart.”
Now for the frequently asked questions.
First up: “Is the United States a tough room for this pope?”
For sure, a variety of factors make the States a challenging venue for history’s first Latin American pontiff, and a man who’s never been to the country before.
On his side of the ledger, Francis brings some of the same ambivalence that many Latin American bishops feel.
In general, Latin American prelates respect the economic and military importance of the United States and appreciate the generosity of Americans. However, they’re also aware of the checkered history of the United States in their region, and many believe the United States sometimes doesn’t take adequate account of the impact of its decisions on the rest of the world.
On the American side, there has been anti-Francis blowback among some conservative Catholics over his doctrinal statements or his liturgical practices, and among some secular conservatives who object to his positions on immigration, the environment, and the economy.
Two points, however, suggest not over-dramatizing the challenges.
First, despite a recent dip, Francis still has approval ratings in the United States of which most politicians or celebrities could only dream.
Second, there is a standard media dynamic on every papal trip of issuing predictions of disaster in the run-up, and then, measured against that low standard, proclaiming the trip a triumph at the end.
What this suggests is a dose of caution on both ends – not being seduced by the narrative of impending doom at the beginning, and waiting before passing judgment about the trip’s long-term impact at the end.
Here’s the second frequently asked question:
“Who’s going to get a bump from this trip in 2016?”
Conventional wisdom holds that the Democrats have the most to gain, given the pope’s expected focus on issues such as immigration and the fight against climate change. Moreover, given perceptions that the US Church has been moving into a steadily tighter alliance with the Republicans, anything that cuts in a different direction arguably helps the opposition.
Yet it all depends on whether one considers everything the pope has to say, rather than focusing only on selective portions of it.
His core reason for coming to the United States is to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, where it’s inevitable that he’ll talk about the traditional Christian concept of the family as a union between a man and a woman.
It’s also likely that he’ll refer to what he calls “ideological colonization,” meaning efforts by Western governments and NGOs to force the developing world to adopt population control strategies as a condition of development assistance.
In other words, for anyone paying attention to the whole message, the net political effect is likely to be a wash.
That summation, however, comes awfully close to a prediction. As I’ve already said, with Pope Francis, it’s best not to be overly dogmatic, because he’s perennially capable of surprise.
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Africa trip shapes up as a reflection on martyrs new and old
Speaking of papal trips, the Vatican formally announced the dates this week for the pope’s first trip to Africa later this year. Francis will visit Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic Nov. 25-30.
Two points are worth making about the outing.
First, the decision to travel to the Central African Republic Nov. 29-30 is remarkably bold, given that the country is basically still a combat zone. A civil war has been underway for the past three years that’s left 6,000 people dead and a quarter of the population of 4.6 million displaced.
Just on Wednesday, grenade attacks in the capital city of Bangui, where Francis will visit, killed at least two people and wounded 20.
From the beginning, Pope Francis has aspired to be a peacemaker. He brought the presidents of Israel and Palestine together for prayer, and played a role in resolving tensions between the United States and Cuba.
This will be the first time, however, that the pontiff has traveled to a war-torn nation while the fighting is still underway, albeit at a lower level of intensity.
(That, by the way, is the definition of a tough room for a papal trip, not ideological grousing in the States.)
Second, more than any other of the 10 foreign trips Francis will have taken by late November, this one invites a focus on martyrdom and anti-Christian persecution in the early 21st century.
In Kenya, Francis will visit a Christian community still reeling from an attack in April, during Holy Week, on Garissa University in the eastern part of the country. All told, 147 people died and at least 80 were injured.
The assault was carried out by the Somalia-based Al Shabaab Islamic terrorist group, which began by shooting up a Christian prayer service. They moved on, leaving Muslims unharmed while killing or abducting Christian students.
It’s not clear if the militants deliberately chose one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar for the assault, though Christmas and Easter tend to be periods of special risk for Christians in many parts of the world.
The attack was the second deadliest in Kenya’s history, after the 1988 bombings at the US embassy in Nairobi, and left the country’s Christian majority suddenly feeling exposed and vulnerable.
In Uganda, the pontiff will almost certainly visit the famed Basilica of the Uganda Martyrs, referring to 22 young Catholics who were servants of a traditional king and were executed in 1886. They died alongside an equal number of Anglicans, for 45 victims in all.
Allegedly, the martyrs were killed in part for spurning the king’s homosexual advances. (That version of history is disputed by locals who consider themselves part of the old Buganda kingdom – which, by the way, is still a going concern, with a king and queen ruling over a swath of territory that enjoys some autonomy from the state.)
The Uganda martyrs are considered continent-wide symbols of the sacrifices made by African Christians in the early period as the faith began to take hold. They were canonized in 1964, by Pope Paul VI, who visited the basilica in 1969. St. John Paul II did the same in 1993.
In the Central African Republic, Francis will be visiting a place where Christian suffering is far more recent.
In 2013, the Seleka rebel group, whose name means “alliance”, was formed by disaffected Muslim military and political leaders. They felt the government of newly-elected president Francois Bozize, a Christian, had sidelined them for religious reasons.
The insurgents quickly took control of the capital, Bangui, and just as promptly their mission bled into sectarian killings, with the Muslim rebels slaughtering mostly Christian civilians, often by burning them alive.
In a country where 80 percent of the population is Christian, the Seleka’s victims weren’t inclined to take things lying down.
Led by members of the previous government’s security forces, Christians created their own militias, called “anti-balaka” groups, taking their name from a weapon that combines a machete with an AK-47.
Although ostensibly created for defensive purposes, these Christian armed bands too became steadily more aggressive. Reports suggest they began launching reprisal killings against Muslim civilians, and eventually wanted to expel Muslims from the country entirely.
In May 2015, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power reported that almost all of the country’s 436 mosques had been destroyed, describing the violence as “kind of crazy, chilling.”
The Christian militias carried the fight to such an extremes that in December 2014, the United Nations accused them of carrying out ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim population, while conceding that there was no proof of “genocidal intent.”
The trip thus gives Francis the chance not only to voice solidarity with today’s Christian martyrs, but to make the point that the experience of martyrdom does not afford Christians a license to become persecutors themselves.
While in town, Francis likely will meet the so-called “three saints of Bangui:” The Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame Gbangou, president of the Central Africa Republic’s Evangelical Alliance; Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the country’s Islamic Council, and the Catholic archbishop of Bangui, Diedonné Nzapalainga.
Since the violence begun, the three leaders have organized prayer sessions, rotating the encounters to include the Catholic cathedral, the great mosque, and Protestant churches. They’ve promoted “peace schools,” where children of different religions can study together, as well as health care centers open to everyone irrespective of religious or ethnic background.
They’ve also traveled across Europe and visited the United Nations, among other things pleading for humanitarian assistance for the country. For their efforts, last year Time magazine named them jointly among the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
“We want to stop the massacres,” Guerekoyame-Gbangou said in 2014. “We don’t want there to be a civil war, an interreligious war. We know when a war starts, but we never know when it will end.”
That, undoubtedly, is a sentiment this “Peace Pope” will want to echo.