ROME – Any teacher knows that if you make a point to your students only once, you might as well not make it at all. If you want something to sink in, you have to say it, demonstrate it, and have them practice it over and over again.
That’s the point of homework in school, of drills in the army, and of practice in sports. The point is to take complicated ideas or maneuvers and convert them into muscle memory, so they become second nature and almost automatic.
Judging by Pope Francis’s 2018 Christmas Urbi et Orbi address, “to the city and the world,” which is traditionally a 360-degree review of a pontiff’s chief global concerns, we’ve entered the drill sergeant phase of his papacy.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Francis’s social and political thought won’t find a single new idea in the 1,000-word text, which reads like a brief “greatest hits” collection of points Francis has made over and over again.
Once more, Francis expressed hope for the Israelis and Palestinians to resume dialogue towards a long-delayed peace agreement. He prayed for an end to the bloody conflict in Syria, which since 2011 has claimed an estimated half-million lives and continues to rage. After a brief mention of Yemen, Francis turned to Africa tout court, praying for an end to the “clash of arms” and also mentioning the plight of refugees, who have been a special concern of the Francis papacy from the beginning.
The pope then referred to the Korean peninsula, Venezuela, Ukraine and Nicaragua, and any keyword search of papal rhetoric over the almost six years of his papacy now would yield hundreds of references to each of those locales, often using precisely the same words Francis employed on Christmas day.
The pope ended with a reference to anti-Christian persecution and violations of religious freedom generally.
“May the Lord grant that they, and all minorities, may live in peace and see their rights recognized, especially the right to religious freedom,” he said.
Every year, media organizations, human rights groups, Church leaders and diplomatic observers around the world tend to pay keen attention to the Christmas day Urbi et Orbi, because they’re hoping to glean some insight into new or emerging social concerns for Francis.
That’s often a worthwhile exercise, because Francis sometimes has been able to move the ball on things he cares about, from helping to block a proposed Western offensive in Syria in 2013 to the U.S./Cuba deal to restore diplomatic relations in 2015.
Of course, Francis hasn’t been universally successful – he’s the most pro-migrant leader on the world stage today by a wide margin, yet even in Italy, his own backyard, the country is governed by one of the most anti-migrant coalitions in contemporary Europe.
Even so, Francis has been enough of a game-changer over time that people have learned to pay attention. By that standard – meaning the search for something new or different, another area in which the pope might be seeking to have an impact – the 2018 Urbi et Orbi can only seem a dud.
Frankly, comparing this Christmas day address to previous editions, one might even be tempted to accuse the pontiff of phoning it in – basically cribbing off himself, adding nothing original to the mix.
(To be fair, every pope – like presidents, prime ministers, CEOs, and leaders of every stripe – generally reach a stage in their terms of office when the creative phase is over, and repetition sets in. How many times, for instance, did we hear St. John Paul II warn against a “culture of death” over the years, or call for a “new springtime” of evangelization? How many times did Pope emeritus Benedict XVI muse on the relationship between reason and faith? It hardly seems fair to fault Francis for a dynamic that’s almost universal.)
However, if one chooses to see the Urbi et Orbi less as a policy speech and more as a pedagogical exercise, then the repetition and lack of originality may seem to have a logic after all.
If we accept that there’s only so much novelty most people can absorb at a time, then perhaps the pope – wittingly or not – has decided that we’ve hit that capacity, and it’s time now to let these messages sink in and become part of the fabric of Church life and teaching before moving on.
He certainly would be justified in concluding that the work on these priorities isn’t yet done – it’s not as if peace seems on the brink of breaking out between Israelis and Palestinians, for instance, or doors are being flung open for refugees even in previously resistant corners of the world.
By the standards of sound classroom practice, therefore, one could argue Francis is simply acting as a good teacher – repeating his lessons, over and over again, in the hope that they’ll stick.
A pope is, after all, not employed to be an entertainer, constantly coming up with a new act, but a teacher – and whatever else one might see about Francis, it’s hard to argue that by now his lesson plan isn’t clear.