Pope Francis spread his gospel of not forgetting the poor at the United Nations on Friday morning, where he spoke in his native Spanish to the 193 member delegations and heads of state gathered before him at the General Assembly Hall. It was his first appearance at the UN during his first trip to the United States.
In seizing the chance to address the UN membership in toto, as it celebrates its 70th birthday, the pope ranged not just on poverty and the marginalized but also on the environment, twinning the two into one heartbeat message: social and economic exclusion and its “baleful consequences.” Such exclusion and “harm done to the environment,” he noted, “is harm done to humanity.”
Practically, he listed the harms: human trafficking, marketing of human organs and tissues, sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime.
“Such is the magnitude of these situations and their toll in innocent lives that we must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences,” he said.
Pope Francis, who used such philosophical language with vocabulary of the everyday, took aim mostly at the oppression of poor people in developing countries, albeit indirectly. He praised the UN, for example, for its creation of international norms and frameworks, resolutions of conflicts and peacekeeping operations, but also called on “greater equity” in the world body.
He singled out the Security Council, where the five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — basically run the show, often putting their national interests first and trading heavily in weapons worldwide.
Indeed, the first eruption of applause came as the pope said that more equity in the Council and “financial agencies” will “help limit every kind of abuse or usury, especially where developing countries are concerned.”
The prepared speech, about 35 minutes long, was interrupted many times with spontaneous clapping. The text meandered and obliquely referred to the UN’s new, much-promoted Sustainable Development Goals to once and for all eliminate poverty. The pope also noted other pressing problems that the UN deals with: religious persecution, nuclear proliferation and the arms trade, mass atrocities and lack of education, especially for girls. (Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani who was shot by the Taliban and has become an international advocate for girls’ education, was in the audience.)
He forayed into the “negative effects of military and political interventions which are not coordinated between members of the international community” – repeating his appeals “regarding the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other African countries” as well as conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and the Great Lakes region in Africa.
The pope, however, never went near to making any strong declaration for women’s equality, a sorely missed endorsement from such an enormous international mentor for the global poor, the majority of them women. He oddly eluded mention of the refugee crisis gripping Europe as well.
The speech was delivered on the first day of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals summit meeting, running through Sept. 27; about an hour after the pope spoke, the SDGs were gaveled into formal existence by the new president of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, a Dane.
The UN reached consensus this summer on the 17 global goals to replace the eight expiring this year. The new ones are also focused on wiping out poverty, though they have a universal agenda — achieved through such threads as economic development, “inclusion,” social justice, climate change and governance as well as reinforcing the empowerment of women and girls. (On a separate note, President Obama and Xi Jinping of China issued a joint statement on a “vision for Paris,” regarding the climate conference later this year.)
In practical terms again, the pope told the audience of mostly government leaders that they must do “everything possible to ensure” the absolute minimum: “lodging, labor and land” and “spiritual freedom.” (Among the leaders present were Angela Merkel of Germany, Narendra Modi of India and Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria.)
Dressed in his white robe and white skullcap, his front adorned with a large crucifix hanging from his neck, the pope arrived at the UN in a black Fiat 500 at 8:18 a.m. UN officials contended the visit was the biggest security challenge the world body has faced in its decades in New York. Five other popes have spoken at the UN — the last one being Pope Benedict in 2008 — but Pope Francis’s arrival rivaled all the others because of his popularity.
People who needed to get into the UN began lining up as the sun rose behind the East River. The pope’s visit, a stop of about three hours, went well: he swept into the main entrance for dignitaries, was saluted by the UN honor guard and welcomed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his wife, Yoo Soon-taek, and two children with flowers. The entourage proceeded to Ban’s office on the 38th floor in the Secretariat building, where he and the pope exchanged gifts. (Ban gave the pope a leather stamp album.) Other UN officials slipped in to greet Francis, some telecast live.
Pope Francis then met 350 members of the UN staff at an assembly in the UN’s lobby, with a yellow-flowered wreath decorating the stage where he spoke, Ban nearby for photo opportunities.
The pope was finally ushered toward the General Assembly Hall, escorted in an electric cart down the wide corridors to cheering crowds, yelling, “Papi!” Behind the scenes, he met the new president of the General Assembly, Lykketoft; the preceding president, Sam Kutesa of Uganda; and the president of the UN Security Council in September, Vitaly Churkin of Russia. The only visible woman in the UN entourage, besides Ban’s wife, was Susana Malcorra, Ban’s chief of staff and an Argentine, like the pope.
And when the pope was done reading his speech to a roused audience — an elusive commodity at the UN — the summit meeting continued with music and Malala, as she’s known, speaking before each country took the nostrum.
That first honor went to the Ivory Coast, a poor country in West Africa changing rapidly into a capitalist’s dream, with Western and Asian investments making inroads through government encouragement. The real test of the UN’s development goals to bear fruit for the “abandoned,” to use a pope word, is already unfolding.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.