Pope Francis, Peacemaker
When Pope John Paul II arrived at the airport in Havana in 1998 for a first-ever papal visit, he said: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”
Sixteen years later, a new pope -- himself no stranger to repressive dictatorship, having lived through Argentina’s “Dirty War” -- has helped breathe new life into those aspirations, by prodding the U.S. and Cuba into normalizing diplomatic relations.
The agreement between the two old antagonists effectively ends one of the last battles of the Cold War. It also highlights what could prove to be the most historically consequential aspect of Francis’ papacy: His commitment to the work of healing old wounds -- within his flock, with other churches and governments, and among bitter enemies. It may be the most ambitious peacemaking agenda any pope has ever undertaken.
Francis's active role in brokering the U.S.-Cuba detente wasn’t his only foray into peacemaking this year. When he visited South Korea in August, the Vatican convinced Chinese officials to allow the papal plane to fly over Chinese airspace, a first. While over China, the pope sent a goodwill message to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people. The ultimate goal: Restoring Vatican ties to China, where Catholics have long been forced to worship underground or in churches run by the government.
In April, after a visit to the Middle East, Francis invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican for a prayer session. Both accepted, and while no breakthrough resulted (and none was expected), the gesture reflected Francis’ willingness to become personally involved in peacemaking efforts. It was the first time the Vatican had ever hosted such a gathering with Mideast leaders.
The chief purpose of Francis’ Middle East trip was a meeting with the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church marking the 50th anniversary of a meeting that ended hostilities between the two churches, which split in 1054. Relations have steadily improved in recent decades, and Francis has said he wants to restore the churches into communion with each other, a message he repeated last month while attending an Orthodox service with Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul. If he succeeds, it would be a monumental achievement for Christian unity.
Other popes have cautiously waded into these conflicts. Francis has been diving in. And that is especially true of his approach to healing the divisions within the Catholic Church itself.
In October, when Francis convened a major conference on family life, he thrust into the center of it questions about how the church can build stronger bonds with those who have felt abandoned, including gays and lesbians and remarried couples. He warned the bishops against “hostile rigidity” in their thinking and all but invited them to challenge the church’s status quo, evoking the same spirit that inspired so many changes at the Second Vatican Council.
Some were unhappy about the new openness, but the talks achieved what Francis wanted: Forcing the cardinals to approach issues from a pastoral perspective, centered on the church’s obligation to embrace those most in need of healing. “The church is called to waste no time in seeking to bind up open wounds," Francis said afterward, "and to rekindle hope in so many people who have lost hope."
Francis’ efforts to bind up old wounds is taking many forms. Not all will succeed, and there is always the possibility that new wounds may open as a result; critics have been quick to suggest a possible schism between the church’s liberal and conservative wings. But we are learning that his papacy is best understood by reading the prayer of the saint whose name he took, which begins: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
That plea seems to be getting heard.
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