ROSARIO, Argentina – Popes often use the holidays to dispatch messages to various countries and to address specific crises, sometimes through their Urbi et Orbi blessings and sometimes through special appeals. While no one ever openly rejects these solicitations, some leaders around the world clearly are more inclined to be receptive than others, and some societies more likely to give the pope’s voice an echo.
This time around, Pope Francis appears to have chosen two nations where odds are above-average that both things may be true.
By choosing to address Lebanon and South Sudan, the pontiff not only selected two nations in agony, but two places where the Catholic Church is a crucial part of the social fabric and where the leadership class has good reasons for taking the pope seriously.
In Lebanon, Catholics are somewhere between 30 and 35 percent of the population, the lion’s share members of the Eastern rite Maronite church. In South Sudan, Catholics are almost forty percent of the population, and in both cases the Church operates by far the largest network of schools, hospitals and social service centers. Catholics in both nations are disproportionately represented in political leadership, business and commerce, and intellectual life.
Moreover, leaders in both countries have compelling motives for perking up when the pope speaks.
In Lebanon, a “national pact” dating to 1943 stipulates that the president will be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite. President Michel Aoun is currently facing crises on multiple fronts, and desperately needs the support of his Catholic base.
Meanwhile in South Sudan, Stetson hat-wearing President Salva Kiir Mayardit is also a Catholic, and he knows well that without the infrastructure of the Church, his country would disintegrate. Both Mayardit’s allies and rivals also know that at a time of Covid-driven retrenchment in foreign engagement and development assistance, Francis’s is almost the lone voice on the global stage preventing South Sudan’s suffering from being utterly ignored.
Both countries are also still hoping for the visibility, good will and mini-boom that come with a papal visit, and are thus even more motivated to take the pope seriously.
Whether the pope’s Christmas Eve messages will work any miracles remains to be seen, but one can at least take to the bank that both Lebanon and South Sudan were paying attention.
In the pope’s words from his Christmas message, addressed both to Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, patriarch of Antioch, and to the “beloved sons and daughters of Lebanon,” the country today faces a “grave crisis.”
Quoting a pastoral letter from Patriarch Elias Hoyek of Antiochia, who died in 1932, Francis noted that political and religious leaders, “judges of the earth, deputies of the people, who act on their behalf… are obligated, in your official capacity and according to your responsibilities, to seek the best interest of the public. Your time should not be dedicated to pursuing your own gain, your action is not for yourselves, but for the state and the nation you represent.”
Since the war broke in Syria a decade ago and during the rise and fall of the terrorist Islamic State, Lebanon has been a beacon of hope in the region, opening its doors to millions of refugees seeking a safe place, even if the country, due to its size, couldn’t necessarily offer a great future. Lebanon’s population is estimated in six million people, but one in four are refugees who arrived in the country in the past decade.
A combination of factors, from the migrant crisis to political instability and coronavirus, meant that by the time the land of the cedars was shocked by a deadly explosion on August 4, the country was already facing its worst financial crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
The blast, which took place in the port of Beirut, killed 200 people and injured 6,000 others, while leaving 300,000 homeless. Many questions remain unanswered, including why highly flammable material was knowingly left at the port, the heart of Beirut, for nearly seven years.
Four months on, no one has been held responsible for the blast.
The Beirut-based head of the Jesuit Refugee Service for the Middle East and North Africa, Father Daniel Corrou, told Crux at the time that, as St. John Paul II would often say, “Lebanon is the message.”
“Lebanon is a place where peoples, minorities, can all live together and when they’re at their best, do so in harmony,” the American priest said.
“The idea of the global Church standing with the people of Lebanon is a way to acknowledge that minorities, whoever they are, all groups, can in fact live together, deal with the inadequacies of one another and savor the goodness of one another,” Corrou said.
This was, in its core, the content of Pope Francis’ Christmas message, that comes as the political leadership in Lebanon fails to form a government.
During the past years, Lebanon has been living beyond its means, with successive governments piling up debt, which by March 2020 rose to the equivalent of the 170 percent of the national output. National banks bore most of the nations spending, and by early last year, their losses on loans to the state totaled $83 billion. This led to banks closing their doors and freezing all accounts, effectively shutting down Lebanon’s economy.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon’s economic output had shrunk by 6.7 percent in 2019, and it’s projected to shrink by another 20 percent in 2020.
Hopes that Lebanon would have a new government before the end of the year were dashed on Wednesday, with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri warning of “clear complications hindering the birth of the new leadership.”
Speaking to journalists after his 14th meeting with President Michel Aoun, Hariri said that despite attempts to halt Lebanon’s collapse, “the existing political problems are clear.”
He added: “We must be humble and think about the country’s interests. A government must be formed after the new year.”
Addressing the Lebanese people, he said: “Do not let anyone tell you that we cannot stop the current collapse, but President Aoun and I need a government of specialists and experts who know what they are doing, without being politicized.”
On Sunday, Rahi had promised to continue his efforts in various directions to “push forward the cabinet formation process, out of my sense of the plights of our brothers and sons in Lebanon… and out of fear over the collapse of state institutions.” During his Sunday-Mass homily, he said he believed it was his duty as a patriarch, undertaken as a personal initiative, to trust to mediate so a new government can be formed.
Reports on Christmas Day, however, noted that the patriarch was growing increasingly frustrated at the two elected leaders and what he perceived as an unwillingness on their part to form a coalition government, as mandated by the country’s constitution. Lebanon is a parliamentary republic within a framework of confessionalism, which means that positions in the cabinet are distributed on the basis of religious identity.
Back in 2017, during a meeting with then-recently elected Aun in the Vatican, the pope reportedly expressed his hopes to visit Lebanon soon, after he expressed satisfaction for the efforts of the political parties to finally ending a presidential vacancy that had gone on for over 2 and a half years.
Also on Thursday, the Vatican released a message from the pontiff to South Sudan, though this time it was signed by three religious leaders: “Francis, Justin Welby, Martin Fair.” One is, of course, the pope, the second the Archbishop of Canterbury and as such, head of the Anglican Church, and the third the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.
The three have long united efforts to try to foster peace in war-torn South Sudan, a land-lock nation that won its independence from Sudan in 2011, making it the most recent sovereign nation with widespread recognition.
However, it’s been rough in South Sudan basically since: it’s endured a civil war characterized by rampant human right abuses, including various ethnic massacres and killing of journalists by all sides. The conflict came to an unsteady end in Feb. 2020, when rivals Salva Kiir Mayardit and Riek Machar formed a coalition government, after reaching a unity deal in January, paving the way for refugees to return home.
South Sudan plunged into civil war two years after its independence from the Muslim-majority Sudan, when Kiir, a Dinka, fired Machar, from the Nuer ethnic group, from the vice presidency.
The renewed unity was formed not without a lot of help from Francis, Welby and Fair, since the majority of the South Sudanese population is Christian. Using a stick-and-carrot approach, they’ve long dangled the promise of a trip by all three leaders if the country was able to foster a lasting peace.
Hence the core of the message on Thursday: “We remain prayerfully mindful of the commitments made at the Vatican in April 2019-yours to bring your country to a smooth implementation of the Peace Agreement, and ours to visit South Sudan in due course, as things return to normalcy.”
“We have been glad to see the small progress you have made, but know it is not enough for your people to feel the full effect of peace,” the three wrote. “When we visit, we long to bear witness to a changed nation, governed by leaders who, in the words of the Holy Father last year, ‘hold hands, united… as simple citizens’ to ‘become Fathers (and Mothers) of the Nation’.”
The pontiff has been tireless in pushing for peace in South Sudan, even hosting the warring leaders for a two-day spiritual retreat in the Vatican in April 2019. In a dramatic gesture after the unprecedented retreat, Francis knelt to kiss the feet of the South Sudanese previously warring leaders. Hence why, when they signed a peace agreement in Rome this January they said: “How can we not bring peace if the Pope pushes us to do so?”
About 400,000 people died in South Sudan’s civil war and more than a third of the country’s 12 million people were uprooted, sparking Africa’s worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma