The obligation of compassion – On Lesbos and St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Pope Francis is visiting Lesbos today, one of the vocal points of the European refugee crisis: here and on other Mediterrenean islands, people from the Middle East arrive in small boats, often extorted by ruthless traffickers for the privilege, on the run from war, violence and poverty in their homelands. Their future? Uncertainty, strange societies, crowded camps and, at worst, a forced return to where they came from.

naamloosIt is perhaps no coincidence that today is also the feast day of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. Born in France in the 18th century, he had the streets of Rome for his home. Often denying himself what he needed, his concerns for his fellow homeless caused him to share his food and even cure the sick in body and mind. In 1783 he died in a hospice, only 39 years old.

Many of the refugees may find themselves in similar situations. Just like St. Benedict Joseph Labre was rejected by the Trappists, the Carthusians and the Cistercians and so began his years wandering the streets, refugees are met with the same indifference, contempt even. To them, their future may not seem so different from that of today’s saint: moving from one place to the next, nowhere at home. They may have a physical roof over their heads in refugee camps and asylum centres, but mentally they may feel homeless.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre, while not having enough to eat for himself, nor a dry place to sleep, still found the will and the means to care for others who had it even worse than he. Can we do less? Can we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even if we may not like them, distrust them, want them to be somewhere else than in our backyard?

St. Benedict Joseph Labre spent his days in cathedrals and churches, in prayer and adoration. Before God, he learned that mercy and compassion are not dictated by our own situation in life, that we are all called to help, to accept people, not reject them, even at the cost of our own perceived wellbeing. And yes, of course there may be risks in acceptance. Rejection is always the safer option if we want to avoid burdens or challenges. But when comparing risks to the inherent human dignity of everyone, it should be clear where the priority must lie.

Pope Francis’ visit will be a clear example of our obligation to care for others. That obligation does not go away, becomes even greater perhaps, when we hide those others in camps on the edge of our world.

Francis to Lund – Pope or Reformation?

Pope Francis will make a one-day visit to Sweden in October, and while it is still more than six months away, details of the visit remain scarce. All we know for certain is that the Holy Father will take part in the opening of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Lund, together with the World Lutheran Federation, which was established in that city in 1947.

142434The president of the Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference, Copenhagen’s Bishop Czeslaw Kozon, noted yesterday that there is a desire among Catholics for a specific event with the Pope for them, and there have indeed been rumours that the Holy Father is to celebrate a Mass in either Lund or nearby Malmö. Bishop Kozon also observed that, despite all intents and purposes, the Pope will mostly be seen as the Pope, and not chiefly as a participant in the Reformation anniversary, “and people will be coming more for the Pope’s sake than for the sake of the Reformation”.

The papal visit, on 31 October, will be co-organised by the World Lutheran Federation, the Diocese of Stockholm and the Council of Churches of Sweden.

Photo credit: Peter Kristensen

Pope in the air – on understanding papal communication

Ah, the joy of papal in-flight press conferences. They are not his invention, but under Pope Francis they’ve become something both looked forward to and feared by many. His most recent one, on the return flight from Mexico, was no exception.

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When it comes to communication, Pope Francis’ preference seems to lie with the verbal variety. In conversations, homilies and speeches he relies on animation, vocal emphasis, gestures and spontaneous interjections to get his message across. This makes him a fascinating voice to listen to, but in writing, I find, he is more of a challenge. There are exceptions, such as his encyclicals Lumen Fidei and Laudato si’ or the Bull Misericordiae vultus, which are intended to be read rather than heard. But when we read his daily homilies, transcripts of interviews and speeches (certainly the ones he gives without preparation), something gets lost, something that is there in forms of communication other than speech.

Pope Francis commented on a variety of topics on his flight back to Rome last Thursday, including some which were bound to get journalists writing: sexual abuse, immigration, the meeting with Patriarch Kirill, politics (Mexican, Italian, American), abortion, divorce, forgiveness… And in a transcription, especially a translated one (such as here), we can see traces of the interjections but the non-verbal communication is completely absent, of course. And a significant part of the message is lost as a result. This is something to keep in mind when reading what the Pope has said.

Some commenters state that Popes do not issue authoritative magisterial teaching in airplane interviews, and they are right. But they are not right in automatically disregarding such interviews as meaningless for that reason. Pope Francis has not changed any part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and he never intended to. We should not read his comments as such. We should read (or, to get the full message, hear) them as an effort by the Holy Father to explain something, to teach about what the Church teaches and how she acts or speaks in certain situations or on certain topics.

It is important to also have this in the back of our heads when listening to the Pope in a press conference. The Pope does. His comments are made on the presumption that Church teaching is given. It is not made or changed in the interview, but underlies whatever is being said. And of course the comments can be debated, criticised, applauded or even ignored. They should, however, never be made out to be something they are not: doctrinal statements. The Pope has other channels for those.

Photo credit: Alessandro Di Meo/Pool Photo via AP

It starts with sorry – another Catholic apology in Lund?

“I do not have a direct line with the Pope, but I certainly expect that there will be a Lund Declaration”. Words from Bishop Gerard de Korte about Pope Francis’ October visit to Sweden, where he will attend a joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the Reformation. From protestant circles comes the hope that this declaration will include a Catholic acknowledgement of past mistakes  in dealing with the church communities that came of the Reformation (and also with Martin Luther himself). I have to wonder if the recent apologies made by Pope Francis, and those made by Popes Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II before him, are anything like the acknowledgements hoped for?

Fact is that the Catholic Church has long been aware and honest about mistakes made in the past. Have the Protestant churches done anything similar? I know of none. Father Dwight Longenecker had a thoughtful blog post about that recently.

We can make all the declarations, acknowledgements and apologies we want, but if it ends with that, ecumenism is going nowhere.  They are a starting point, and as such we shouldn’t repeat them over and over. An apology once made remains valid, of course. After acknowledging our past, we can proceed to the future. With Father Dwight I wonder, are the Protestants that far yet? Maybe what we should hope for is a declaration in which they also honestly acknowledge their mistakes and apologise for them, and not always look at the Catholic Church to repeat how wrong they have been. We know. We have said so. We regret it and are now looking forward to right the wrongs. In that way the Reformation can be commemorated for what it is: not a reason to celebrate, but a very painful rupture in the unity of the Christian church.

For ecumenism, Pope Francis goes to Sweden

For the second time in history, the Pope will go to the Nordic countries. Well, a Nordic country. In 1989, Pope St. John Paul II was in Sweden for two days, visiting Stockholm, Uppsala, Vadstena and Linköping. This year, on 31 October, Pope Francis will go to Lund.

The surprising announcement was made today, but in hindsight it is impossible to not recall, in relation to this, the visit of the head of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, Archbishop Antje Jackelén, to Pope Francis in May of last year (pictured below). Undoubtedly, the papal visit was discussed then.

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The one-day visit, which is not an apostolic journey, or a regular papal visit to the faithful of a given country, will be to the ecumenical celebration of the Catholic Church in Sweden and the Lutheran World Federation to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which will take place in the Southern Swedish city of Lund, where the LWF was founded in 1947. Pope Francis will be leading this celebration together with the president and general secretary of the LWF. Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, is also said to accompany the Holy Father. This service will be based on the recently-published Catholic-Lutheran liturgical guide, which proposes and formalises ways in which members of both communities can celebrate together.

Other elements of the visit are still to be announced. It will be Pope Francis’ fifth visit to a European country (not counting Italy), after Albania and France in 2014, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2015, and Poland in July of 2016.

Your blogger is definitely looking into a slim chance of travelling to Lund at that time, and report from there. Keep your eyes on the blog.

The faith in Africa grows because its people are backwards, German editor insists

In the margins of Pope Francis’ current apostolic journey to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, an opinion piece on Katholisch.de by editor Björn Odendahl has caused a stir, and not without reason. It betrays a simplistic, even derogatory attitude towards African faithful, and has caused some to accuse Odendahl of outright racism.

Odendahl discusses Pope Francis’ well-known focus on the margins of society, be it nearby (the homeless, sick and elderly of western society) or further afield (the booming Church communities in Africa, for example), and he contrasts these with the centre, struck as it is with complacency, wealth, defeatism even. But, Odendahl says, the Pope is not always right in these comparisons, and displays a romantic view of poverty.

His view on Africa, Odendahl explains, is an example of that romantic view. The paragraph in question:

“Of course the Church is growing there. She grows because the people are socially behind and often have nothing but their faith. She grows because the level of education is generally low and the people accept simple answers to difficult questions (of faith). Answers like those from Guinean Cardinal Sarah. And the increasing number of priests is not due solely to missionary power, but it is also one of the sole means of social security on the black continent.”

The tone of the passage is insulting enough, and the big question is if any of this is accurate. Pope Francis is currently in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and will soon depart for Kampala in neighbouring Uganda. Neither city fits the image that Odendahl paints in his article: they are major cities, the economic hearts of their respective countries, with major companies, facilities and educational institutions. Granted, like their western counterparts, Nairobi and Kampala have their share of poverty and marginalised people. But in Odendahl’s mind, it seems, many of their inhabitants should be backwards, socially helpless and simple-minded, because they are enthusiastically and faithfully Catholic. Which is, quite frankly, an insult.

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^A group of backwards, simplistic people await the arrival of Pope Francis in Kenya. Note: this may not be a realistic and truthful description.

In addition to this opinion on African Catholics, there is another strange tendency in Odendahl’s piece: he seems to equate the growth of the Church and the adherence to faith with social backwardness and lack of education and development. In modern societies, like Germany, faith is unavoidably disappearing because people are intelligent and socially progressive, we are apparently asked to conclude.

In short, Odendahl’s piece is simplistic, backwards (exactly what he accuses the African faithful of) and insulting to an extreme.

The opinion piece, in which an author must, by definition, have a certain measure of freedom, was published on Katholisch.de. This is the Internet portal of the Church in Germany which cooperates with the German dioceses, religious orders and other institutions, although it is not the official mouthpiece of these. It employs editors and reporters and makes use of the freedom of press to inform, report in depth and give opinions. It is not run by the bishops (who have the website of the bishops’ conference, dbk.de, for that), but they do work closely with them, making Katholisch.de one  of the major exclusively Catholic voices in Germany.

Can the bishops be held responsible for this piece? No. Would it be wise for them to denounce it? Yes, very much so.

Inflating an aside – disagreements over a theoretical papal visit

“It is not impossible,” Pope Francis said about visiting the Netherlands. “And now that the Netherlands has an Argentine queen, who knows?”

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He may wish he had refrained from this aside in the interview with Straatnieuws, which was published last week. Because even this is reason for some to launch into diatribes about papal visits being blocked and bishops being less than keen to have the Holy Father come over.

Following the interview, the bishops’ conference released a statement to the effect that Pope Francis has always been and remains welcome, although there is, at this time, no official invitation. Early last year Cardinal Eijk, president of the conference, enquired with Pope Francis about a visit to the Netherlands, to which the Holy Father replied that he did not see a chance in the near future. The bishops acknowledged this in last week’s statement, and repeated that a visit remains possible, “if there is space in everyone’s agenda”. Earlier today, they once again stated something similar, adding that the Pope is aware that he is welcome and that the bishops remain in contact with Pope Francis about it.

Some have called this a pathetic response, and others have – once again – sent an open letter to the media to convince the Pope to come and visit after all. A visit that, they claim or at least suggest, the bishops do not want, but which the faithful desperately need.

Thus an image is drawn based on a faulty perception: the Pope’s comment in the interview is taken far too seriously (of course he is not going to say he doesn’t want to come and visit), and the bishops’ statement, coupled with the continued absence of any preparation for a papal visit, is seen as active opposition on the part of the local episcopate.

It would be wonderful if Pope Francis would make an apostolic journey to the Netherlands, but let’s be realistic. It’s not as if our country is significant when seen from Rome, nor will it feature high on the list of Pope Francis’ priorities. The financial  and logistical side, not unimportant, requires careful preparation. An open invitation or petition by itself is not going to do that. I don’t blame the bishops for being careful. To see that as a sign of opposition is delusional.

A papal visit should unite the faithful – bishops and laity -, not draw lines. At this moment, the latter is happening.