ROME — Francis’ papacy now has spanned parts of four years, and each of the first three brought a signature diplomatic breakthrough: helping prevent an anti-Assad Western offensive in Syria in 2013, restoring US/Cuba relations in 2014, and providing moral support for the Paris climate change accord in 2015.
On Monday, Francis delivered his annual address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, and many of the tuxedo-glad envoys probably were looking around the Sala Regia wondering, “Which one of us is next?”
To be sure, historic diplomatic and political triumphs don’t just fall from trees, and it’s utterly unrealistic to demand one from any pope on an annual basis.
Yet Francis is a pope in a hurry, with a track record of making a difference. Surveying the global scene in early 2016, here are five places where it seems at least possible his political lightning might strike next.
The key word is “breakthrough,” not “engagement.” There’s a much longer list of fronts upon which Francis and the Vatican will be engaged, from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to Ukraine and China and beyond.
What we’re looking for are places where the stars seem aligned in such a way that a nudge from Francis, at the right moment, could mean the difference between real change and a return to the status quo.
US immigration debates
One issue destined to figure in the 2016 US elections is immigration reform, with proposals for comprehensive reform presently stalled in Congress and seemingly unlikely to move forward before November.
Donald Trump’s calls for a huge wall along the US-Mexico border and a ban on all Muslims entering the country have animated the Republican base, making a perception of being tough on immigration now seem a litmus test for success.
Pope Francis is scheduled to make a Feb. 17 stop at the US border with Mexico, at Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, where he’s expected once again to express his support for immigrant rights just as the 2016 campaign is heating up in earnest.
The pontiff mentioned his planned stop in Ciudad Juarez on Monday, saying it represents a “dramatic situation” at the border.
However remote the possibility, the coincidence of the pope’s trip with the political season in America creates a window in which Francis could give a boost to moderates on immigration reform — if not at the presidential level, then perhaps in some congressional races.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan famously stood in West Berlin and told the Soviets, “Tear down this wall!” Depending on what Francis says and does in Ciudad Juarez, it could be remembered as his “Don’t build this wall!” moment.
Europe’s refugee crisis
Europe is struggling with its most massive refugee crisis since World War II, with the International Organization for Migration reporting that as of Dec. 21, more than 1 million refugees and migrants had arrived on the continent in 2015, mostly by sea, with the violence in Syria being the biggest force driving the movement.
European politics today often are defined by clash between pro- and anti-migrant voices, with a mounting tendency to favor a closed-door policy. That’s true of several nations where Catholicism historically has been a dominant social player, such as Poland, Hungary, and Austria.
Francis devoted his 4,000-word speech on Monday in large part to a plea for “accepting and accommodating” these new arrivals — a clear signal that Europe’s crisis is a priority for him in 2016.
“I wish to reaffirm my conviction that Europe … has the means to defend the centrality of the human person and to find the right balance between its twofold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to ensure assistance and acceptance to migrants,” he said.
If Francis finds imaginative ways of making that case in 2016, he could have an effect on European politics — perhaps beginning in his own backyard of Italy.
On Monday, the pontiff called on Italians not to lose their “traditional sense of hospitality and solidarity” in the face of “the inevitable difficulties of the moment.”
One chance for Francis to deliver his message will come in Poland in July, when he travels to Krakow for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day. A right-wing government has threatened to back out of commitments to welcome migrants as part of an EU framework, but it depends on Catholic support, and a papal shaming might get its attention.
Peace talks in Havana designed to end more than five decades of conflict are scheduled to resume on Wednesday, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently vowed that they will remain in “permanent session” until a deal is done, aiming to wrap things up by March.
The government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have already reached agreements on land reform, political participation, drugs and drug crops, and redress for victims of the violence. The last point on the agenda concerns implementing a permanent bilateral cease-fire, including FARC laying down its arms.
Francis has taken a personal interest in the talks, acknowledging in response to a question during an airborne news conference last September returning from the United States that, by that stage, he’d spoken by phone to Santos twice to urge progress.
Earlier, during his stop in Cuba, the pontiff directly addressed the talks during a Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square, saying “we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure.”
Given the Latin American connection and the fact that both the Santos government and the FARC leadership has paid tribute to Francis’ support, it’s entirely possible that if they hit a roadblock, they might turn to the pontiff for an assist.
If so, and a peace deal is reached and implemented, Francis could once again be hailed as a game-changer.
Central African Republic
The first round of voting in presidential elections in the Central African Republic on Dec. 30 were largely peaceful, a surprise to many in a nation that’s been torn apart by savage violence between rival Muslim and Christian militias.
A runoff will be held Jan. 31, assuming the relative calm holds, and depending on how it goes, the country may be able to start putting the pieces back together.
Francis earned enormous goodwill in the Central African Republic with his two-day visit in late November, brushing aside security concerns. A key moment came when he visited a mosque in an area of the capital city of Bangui dominated by jihadist forces, despite last-minute appeals to the pope to pull out because it was too risky.
Many observers credit the pope’s visit, and his message of reconciliation, with changing the climate.
“It played a definite role in calming the seas ahead of the elections,” says Alex Fielding, an analyst at Max Security Solutions.
It’s hardly written in the stars that the elections will have a happy ending, especially given that at least 20 of the 30 presidential candidates in the first round denounced the count as a sham.
But if they do, Francis will get a great deal of the credit — especially if between now and then he agrees to do something else, perhaps some telephone diplomacy, that’s seen as making a difference.
Obviously, Francis by himself cannot bring down ISIS, especially given that the radical Islamic group has repeatedly threatened the Vatican, including putting St. Peter’s Square on the cover of its online magazine in November in a not-so-subtle warning.
What Francis might be able to do, however, is to encourage Western nations to be more committed to the anti-ISIS push, especially in terms of protecting the region’s vulnerable minorities — prominently including the small but significant Christian presence.
It would be, in some ways, a counterintuitive stance from a “Peace Pope,” but Francis is being encouraged by his own bishops in the region, who repeatedly have warned that their flocks face the risk of “genocide.” The pontiff brought up their fate on Monday.
“My thoughts turn to the Christians of the Middle East, who desire to contribute fully as citizens to the spiritual and material well-being of their respective nations,” he said.
In December, a Gallup poll showed that for the first time, a majority of Americans, 53 percent, now support putting boots on the ground against ISIS, and it’s bound to be an issue in the 2016 elections.
Francis has already said that “it’s legitimate to stop an unjust aggressor.” A new dose of moral exhortation from the pope could help put mounting calls for stronger action over the top, and not just in the United States.