While Pope Francis may remain a prisoner of the Vatican due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, his closest aides clearly aren’t, recently taking trips the 83-year-old pontiff otherwise might have made himself.
Both Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s most senior aide, and British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, head of the pope’s diplomatic service, have been on the road trying to carry the pope’s message in the absence of his physical presence.
Over the past 10 days, Parolin went to Lebanon to mark the one-month anniversary of the devastating explosion in the Beirut port and visited the Italian Shrine of Torre Ruggiero in Calabria, a region home to the ‘Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate.
On Sept. 2, during his first public audience since March, Pope Francis kissed a Lebanese flag brought by a young priest and called for Sept. 4 to be a “day of prayer and fasting” for the troubled country. He also announced that Parolin would be flying to Lebanon for the anniversary.
Lebanon’s centuries-old Christian community is made up of many denominations, including Maronite and Greek Melkite Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, and both Orthodox and Catholic Armenians. Despite conflicts, invasions, and wars, they remain between 30 to 40 percent of the country.
Already exhausted by a collapsing economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, Lebanon was traumatized by the unexpected Aug. 4 blast, the product of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored for years in a port warehouse. At least 190 people died, more than 6,5000 were injured and more than 300,000 remain homeless.
In addition, the country faces perhaps the world’s single most dramatic refugee crisis in terms of percentage of population. The Catholic Church plays a key role in navigating tensions between an increasingly resentful native population and a rapidly swelling cohort of Syrian refugees, now believed to be a third or more of the country.
“The beautiful examples of solidarity being lived all over Beirut strengthen our hope and inspire our future actions,” Parolin said Sept. 3, at the Maronite Catholic Cathedral of St. George in Beirut, where he met religious leaders representing all the church denominations in Beirut and with representatives of the Sunni, Shiite and Druze communities.
“I know that all of you are bearing the biggest part of the responsibility and deploying great efforts not to abandon anyone in these tragic circumstances,” he told religious leaders. “May you continue to offer an example of sincere solidarity, faithful to the Lebanese tradition of resilience, creativity and mutual support.”
“I wish to repeat quite clearly the appeal of Pope Francis to the international community: Do not leave Lebanon alone! Lebanon needs the world, but the world also needs the unique ongoing experiment of pluralism, living together in solidarity and freedom that is Lebanon,” Parolin said.
A few days later, Sept. 8, the cardinal was back on the road, this time at the Shrine of Torre Ruggiero in Calabria. It was here where, during a procession with Our Lady of Grace in 2014, the faithful stopped in front of the house of a mafia boss under house arrest and had the Virgin do a gesture of reverence, as if honoring the criminal.
“Popular piety is a great treasure the Church cannot do without, precisely because it supports faith in all situations,” Parolin said. “But it also needs to be purified from some elements that are not appropriate, all the more so if they are underworld or criminal elements.”
Both are lines that could easily have been spoken by Francis himself.
On August 15, Francis penned a letter to an Italian priest who leads a taskforce that includes priests, police officials, anti-racketing and anti-usury experts to fight the Mafia, calling on them to “free the figure of the Madonna from the influence of criminal organizations.”
“Marian devotion is a religious-cultural heritage to be safeguarded in its original purity, freeing it from superstructures, powers or conditioning that do not meet the evangelical criteria of justice, freedom, honesty and solidarity,” Francis wrote.
While Parolin was away, so was Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States. Gallagher arrived in the capital of Belarus Friday “to show the attention and closeness of the Holy Father to the Catholic Church and the whole country,” according to a statement from the Vatican’s press office, and he’ll stay until Monday.
Belarus has seen weeks of socio-political turmoil as opposition parties contest and question President Alexander Lukashenko’s victory in recent elections. The conflict has been on the rise, and the man who’s led Belarus since 1994 has done little to hide the fact that he’s not going to allow opposition from the Catholic church.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest, and church authorities have confirmed that Catholic clergy and laypeople have been beaten and jailed. Earlier this month, police barricaded Sts. Simon and Helena Church and, hours later, arrested protesters who had sought refuge there as they exited the building.
Gallagher is set to meet with civil authorities and with Church leaders. However, there will be one glaring absence in his agenda: a chat with the Archbishop of Minsk, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, who traveled to Poland for the feast of Our Lady of Częstochowa at the end of August, and has been unable to return because Belarusian authorities banned him.
In a statement Kondrusiewicz wrote that under the conditions of the current socio-political crisis in his homeland, “I continue to call for dialogue and reconciliation.” He also called for the “unjustified and illegal decision of the border service” not to “aggravate the tension in our homeland”.
In a previous letter read in Catholic churches Aug. 30- a day before being refused reentry to the country- Kondrusiewicz had warned of impending civil war.
The last time Francis spoke about Belarus was on August 16, when the uprising was starting: “My thoughts also go to the dear [country of] Belarus. I am following attentively the post-electoral situation in that country,” he said.
Pope Francis called for “dialogue, the rejection of violence, respect for justice and rights.”
Protests have continued as have the violent attempts to dissuade them, with several videos showing up on social media where female protesters are seen being violently removed from churches by civil authorities. On Sunday, thousands are expected to take the streets of Minsk again, ahead of Lukashenko’s Monday trip to Sochi, Russia, where he’ll meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma