The pope’s annual address to the diplomatic corps is just one of the things that highlights the anachronistic tensions in how the Vatican operates. Held in the Sala Regia, the occasion can hark back to the monarchical era of the papacy—the fresco of the battle of Lepanto of 1571, between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire, is a prominently visible backdrop—but the contents of the address are plainly of the geopolitical moment. Pope Francis’s 2020 speech came in the immediate aftermath of the Trump administration’s assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq and Iran’s retaliatory missile strike on U.S. bases in the same country. In his address, he renewed his appeal for “all the interested parties to avoid an escalation of the conflict and ‘keep alive the flame of dialogue and self-restraint,’ in full respect of international law.” The remarks are in keeping with a political and theological shift long underway; the church and Islam have come a great distance from the battle of Lepanto to the Document on Human Fraternity signed by Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi exactly one year ago, on February 4, 2019.
The pope didn’t limit his focus to the Middle East, but offered a tour d’horizon of the world based on the map of his trips in 2019: from Panama in January to Thailand and Japan in November. Francis lamented the situation of conflict in many regions of the globe: “Sadly, the new year does not seem to be marked by encouraging signs, as much as by heightened tensions and acts of violence.” Another gesture to these times was his special mention of Australia—a country he did not visit—and its catastrophic wildfires. This of course aligns with Francis’s emphasis on environmental issues, a focus of the Synod for the Amazon last October, when he said that “the urgency of this ecological conversion seems not to have been grasped by international politics, where the response to the problems raised by global issues such as climate change remains very weak and a source of grave concern.” Francis also addressed Latin America in his 2020 speech, highlighting the crisis in Venezuela in particular. It must be said that during the papacy of this first Latin American pope, economic and political conditions in the region from which he hails have deteriorated considerably.