The Roman Catholic Church has always been diverse. The New Testament reveals that differences of opinion, practices and orientations have been part of Christianity’s experience since its beginning. The billion-plus Catholics today are not the same as the few hundred Jewish disciples that were contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet the tension between innovation and tradition has been at the core of the Church’s experience over centuries and has enormous bearing on Pope Francis’s peacemaking. Francis’s horizon is spiritual first and not constrained by geopolitical considerations.
The Church cannot be but political. In its concreteness, it is made of actual human beings making choices. However, these people understand that their horizon is that the Holy Spirit is actually present in history and that truth can, and must be, known. There is a widely held contempt toward this effort from violent extremists of many persuasions. The Church itself — in the past, between Constantine and 1870 when the papal territories were lost to the Piedmontese — used violence and secular power. The Church did go to war. It called for war, encouraged war, blessed war and promoted it. Some Catholics still do.
Yet three fundamental strains have emerged in the relationship of the Church with peace and war: just war, pacifism and peacemaking. Pope Francis is a key figure in this millennia-old trend.
Indeed, we can say that there is not only an uninterrupted magisterium pacis — majestic peace — from Leo XIII until today, but there is also an uninterrupted effort to improve relationships with world powers that could make peace possible. Popes have been not only against war; they have also been actively, diplomatically seeking solutions that could bring about peace. Popes have been seeking peace for a long time, and considering the millions that died in these centuries, we may argue that they failed.
It is important to understand Francis and his peacemaking work in this Church and in this time as a person, a pastor and a pope.
Francis the person
Since the moment he was announced as the new pope, Francis has surprised many with his humble, down-to-earth approach. He calls people. He speaks in plain language. He is close to those he meets and has a great sense of presence. He is particularly concerned about the poor. People around the world reacted very positively to this new pope and to the person that is playing the role. Cardinal Bergoglio, as he was originally called, was born the son of an emigrant family (and immigrant if you look at him from the other side).
Coming from the region of Piemonte, the family has roots in Italy. He speaks Italian as he learned it from his grandparents with an interesting accent. He surprised many with his “buonasera” after being elected, but especially with his description of the election as going “to the end of the earth to get him.” He is the son of a frugal family from a remote outpost. He sees himself as coming from the periphery and speaks about it openly.
His personal history is telling. The Vatican’s official biography starts with these words: “The first Pope of the Americas, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, hails from Argentina. The 76-year-old Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires is a prominent figure throughout the continent, yet remains a simple pastor who is deeply loved by his diocese, throughout which he has travelled extensively on the underground and by bus during the 15 years of his episcopal ministry.”
As Francis, who is now 78, has said more than once, explaining his decision to live in an apartment in Buenos Aires and cook his own supper, “My people are poor and I am one of them.”
It is important to understand his values and cultural reference points. Bergoglio was not poor per se (his father was an accountant) and his family was not disjoined (the mother and grandparents were dedicated and present). Yet he chose poverty through religious life and ministered to the poor actively.
Francis the pastor
Many people have been touched (or enraged) by Francis’s remarks to the priests that they should be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” He stressed that God anointed his servants so that they would be there for others, serving “the poor, prisoners, the sick, for those who are sorrowing and alone.” Francis the pastor has a clear idea of what the Church should be, especially her priests and pastors.
Again, in his official Vatican biography we read: “As Archbishop of Buenos Aires — a diocese with more than three million inhabitants — he conceived of a missionary project based on communion and evangelization. He had four main goals: open and brotherly communities; an informed laity playing a lead role; evangelization efforts addressed to every inhabitant of the city; and assistance to the poor and the sick.”
Francis is an activist pastor. He is not afraid of doing. This desire to work and to work with immediacy comes from his encounter of the poor.
In his interviews, Pope Francis has said: “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. . . . And you have to start from the ground up.”
Francis is locating the Church and his own ministry (as well as any other pastor and priest ministry) at this frontier of human suffering, amid the battle, where the poor are currently unrecognized, underserved and unwelcome. There is clearly a zeal to reform the Church, to bring it back to the beginning, “to the freshness of the origins, for a prayerful, penitent Church.”
Francis the pope
These few remarks on Francis the person and the pastor are useful to frame his current peacemaking work and possibly some trajectories.
First, let me specify that I speak about peacemaking and not peace-building. The first is a Gospel word (“Blessed are the peacemakers”), the second is a technical term suggested first by Johan Galtung and then used most famously by United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and many authors. I recognize the importance of the UN Peacebuilding Commission and do not want to take anything from that project. However, I think that it is compelling to frame my remarks in the context of peacemaking as historical peace poetry. Let me elaborate.
“Blessed are the peacemakers” is the verse that we are referring to, and the verb “making” and “doing” of peace has the same root of “poetry.” The text seems to refer to the human creative attitude more than legal, political or diplomatic ones.
For Francis the pope, peace starts in the human heart and is recognized through the encounter, the embrace, the fraternal experience of the other as a blessing of life and liberty. This is not the spirit of Cain. This is not the experience of the poor from Abel on. Their encounter with the powerful is terrible. They are the ones killed, wounded and maimed by the powers of those who can.
This is why Francis has spoken several times of Cain’s story. Cain kills because he can; Cain kills because he does not listen to the Lord. Cain kills because he does not recognize Abel; he does not dialogue; he does not encounter him. Killing occurs first in Cain’s heart — a heart that does not listen to God’s voice; a heart that intentionally moves away from the requirement of life.
This is why, for Francis, the first step in peacemaking is actually self-control, self-restraint. It is repentance. It is the awareness that we can all be Cain.
This call for self-restraint is difficult in historical terms. Francis has been perceived as out of touch with the realities of politics; a voice calling while no one is listening. This was said of the prayer offered for peace in the Middle East with Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Shimon Peres, president of Israel, that was arranged days before the Gaza War this summer.
The Pope is indeed a kind pope but also a contrarian pope, both inside the Church and in his relation to the world. He does not like the suffering of the immigrants. He is pained by the pleas of the unemployed. He abhors the neglect of the elderly. He welcomes children and families together as the living space where it is necessary for the human person to grow. He is clearly anti-abortion, but he does not stress the issue the same way others would have. He is in the middle of the struggle, in the middle of the war — he often refers to the present as a “third world war” — and responds to what he sees, especially through the eyes of the poor.
This attitude elicits enemies inside the Church and outside. Many of these enemies are violent and armed. Yet he does not use the pope-mobile. He is accessible and could be defined (especially for American and Israeli standards) as a “security nightmare.” He could be violently killed soon and yet his response has been, “It’s true that anything could happen, but let’s face it, at my age I don’t have much to lose.”
There is a remarkable firmness to him that is unsettling to many: capitalists who do not like his words on economic matters, Mafiosi and drug dealers who do not like his insistence on refraining from illicit trades, but also conservatives who fear a deregulated Church, arms dealers whom he confronted openly, politicians who do not take into account the common good.
Francis is calling for a life-giving human order that can come only through conversion, acceptance of God and the other, especially the poor. He wants a Church that works, a Church that is present, a Church that is at its best. He wants a world at peace.
Personally, I think that the question before Pope Francis is how to have Yalta before World War II, Vienna before the Napoleonic Wars or Westphalia before the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) and the Eighty Years War (1568–1648).
In a time when some people are beheading enemies of faith, the Catholic Church stands as a refuge for reason, a trusting creative minority where peace can be imagined and accomplished. Think of Solidarność in Poland; of the Philippines and the post-Marcos transition.
We are made by words and moments. Let us be careful about both but also let us be bold in seeking together and respectfully what is good, beautiful and true. Let the good of all be the measure for Francis’s peacemaking.
This essay was adapted from a speech given in fall 2014 by the author and presented by PassBlue with the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center.