[Editors note: This is part one of Crux Vatican correspondent Inès San Martìn’s look back at Pope Francis in 2017. In part two tomorrow, she examines the pontiff’s efforts at Church reform over the last 12 months.]
ROME – Just as 2016 was labeled by many observers as a year of surprises — with the election of Donald Trump, England’s decision to leave the European Union and a Colombian referendum that turned down a peace accord — 2017 might perhaps be seen as a hinge year, full of events and decisions that will continue to have consequences for the foreseeable future.
In the case of Pope Francis, often described as a chess player a few moves ahead, 2017 was not “just another year.”
Picking the top papal news for the past twelve months is no easy task, but we can at least identify three broad areas in which Francis was especially active:
- Walking a tightrope for a stamp in his passport.
- Church reform both in Rome and abroad.
- The pursuit of world peace.
Though he’s given little sign of winding down, Francis this year cut back on international travel, perhaps with the knowledge that preparing for each one of his overseas journeys would be no easy task. Last year he had six trips: Cuba and Mexico; Greece; Armenia; Poland; Georgia and Azerbaijan and Sweden. He only left Italy four times in 2017: Egypt; Portugal; Colombia; and Myanmar and Bangladesh.
In three out of four of those cases, Francis had to measure his words and deeds very carefully, knowing that saying too much — or too little — could have triggered violence against Christians in a Muslim majority country, in the case of Egypt; could have unraveled a weak peace accord that put an end to a decades-long civil war, in Colombia; or further endanger a persecuted Muslim minority, in Myanmar.
The trip to Egypt took place on the last weekend of April, and was first announced in March. In between, as Francis was celebrating Palm Sunday Mass in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, terrorists once again cast a shadow over Holy Week, this time with a bomb blast at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt that left at least 45 people dead and more than 100 injured.
Though Francis was in Egypt for just a little over 24 hours, the brief trip to the world’s sixth largest Muslim nation, and the biggest in the Middle East, was a dicey one, and at the time described as one of the riskiest of his papacy.
Yet, Francis appeared to come out of it standing tall. On day one, he delivered his version of Pope Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg speech, issuing a clear and powerful call to religious leaders – which, in the Egyptian context, unmistakably means Islam first and foremost – to reject violence in the name of God.
“Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or the name of God,” he said. “Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred.”
In the Middle Eastern country with the largest Christian population, the pope also delivered a shot in the arm to Egypt’s persecuted Christians, who represent somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the national population.
Francis’s trip to Fatima, Portugal, the only one that had a set date when 2016 came to an end, was a walk in the park in comparison. Taking place only two weeks after Egypt, May 12-13, Francis avoided any political elements by going straight to Fatima, to venerate the Virgin Mary.
Yet despite the spiritual tone of the outing, it was hardly irrelevant.
The apparitions of our Lady of the Rosary outside the village to three young illiterate shepherds in 1917 remain both among the most beloved, and controversial, of the Catholic Church-approved Marian apparitions. During the six times she appeared, she gave them three “secrets” or messages, involving Hell, the two world wars, and Pope John Paul II’s assassination attempt in 1981, which took place on the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima.
Never one to mince words when challenging his own flock, during his homily for the canonization of two of the young shepherds, Francis warned the hundreds of thousands gathered about going to Hell: “Our Lady foretold, and warned us about, a way of life that is godless and indeed profanes God in his creatures … Such a life – frequently proposed and imposed – risks leading to Hell.”
The pope’s trip to Colombia was one he’d spoken about since almost the beginning of his pontificate. Upholding a promise made several times, when the peace accord between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the country’s largest guerrilla group, known as FARC, was signed and the ink barely dried, Francis confirmed the trip was happening.
Heading in, one PR fear about Francis’s Sept. 6-11 trip to Colombia was that it might come off as nothing more than a victory lap for the government and its controversial peace deal with the country’s Marxist rebels, leaving behind deeper divisions rather than reconciliation.
In the end, however, if the outing felt like a victory lap for anyone, it wasn’t Santos, although he did well too, but the Colombian people.
The pope visited four cities in five days, where millions at a time came out to participate in the Masses he celebrated in Bogotá, Villavicencio and Medellín, not to mention a half million in Cartagena, representing virtually half of the city’s population.
He told the youth to be teachers of forgiveness. He reminded victims of violence and perpetrators that “Hate leads to hate, death to death,” he called for human life to be protected at all stages, decried as unacceptable that children are robbed of childhoods, denounced Latin American machismo, and reminded Catholics in Colombia, who represent over 70 percent of the population, that Jesus is much more demanding than following a set of rules, and being paralyzed by a rigorous interpretation of the law.
But above all, what the five days visit left was clear tangible proof that, despite the political division the peace agreements have generated, Colombia is a country capable of peace.
Bogotá, a city that averages 3.4 violent deaths a day, had none during the first 48 hours of the visit, and the same thing happened with the other cities he visited. Local media described it as a miracle.
One other immediate fruit of the trip was that notorious rebel leader Rodrigo Londoño, commander of the FARC and formerly known by the alias “Timochenko,” sent a letter to the pontiff while he was still in Colombia: “Your repeated messages about God’s infinite mercy move me to plead for your forgiveness for any tears or pain we have caused to the people of Colombia.”
Myanmar and Bangladesh
When popes travel, they usually want to deliver a message of justice, dignity and peace, while also strengthening relations with their host governments. In this sense, Francis’s last foreign trip of 2017 was more of a minefield than a tightrope.
The decision to go to Myanmar and Bangladesh was a bit of a last-minute call, product of the fact that the original tour, India and Bangladesh, couldn’t happen. According to the pontiff himself, the “paperwork” was taking too long. Coming back from the trip, he told journalists he hopes a visit to India can take place in the near future.
Much of the coverage of the Nov. 27-Dec. 2 trip was reduced to the dictionary: will he or won’t he use the word “Rohingya” to refer to a persecuted Muslim minority currently fleeing Myanmar towards Bangladesh. Some 625,000 people have fled since late August, and the United Nations has accused the Burmese government of perpetrating ethnic cleansing.
The pope had been advised by the local bishops to avoid the term, since they feared the fallout could be violent protests in the streets. Myanmar doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as citizens, despite the fact that they’ve been living there for generations.
The pope avoided the word until Dec. 1, when he met 16 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, during an interreligious meeting. After greeting each one of them personally, he delivered an off-the-cuff remark which included an apology for the world’s “indifference” to their suffering.
Beyond his direct and indirect appeals for these and other persecuted minorities in Myanmar, including Christians, who represent six percent of the total population, Francis also laid out his interreligious strategy, which pivots on combating religious violence.
In the list of trips that never were, South Sudan and Congo top the chart. Despite the pope’s intentions, the countries’ devolving crises made it impossible. He did, however, lead a prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica for peace in the two conflict torn African nations.