Pope Francis and his closest allies continue to express their deep concern about the rise of populist political leaders around the world—those who appeal to people’s fear of foreigners and their desire to exclusively pursue isolationist self-interests.
The pope and his confidents are especially alarmed by such developments in the Americas and Europe.
And the early actions of the new U.S. President Donald Trump have only increased their preoccupation. While Francis and other Vatican officials have voiced a “wait and see” attitude towards the head of the world’s leading superpower, they have, nonetheless, sent unmistakable signals that they are not amused by Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and leadership style.
“From the time we were little we were taught that it’s not a good thing to boast,” the pope said last Wednesday at his weekly general audience at the Vatican.
“In my country, braggarts are called ‘peacocks,’” he said.
“And that’s right, because bragging about who we are or what we have—beyond being a certain kind of pride—also demonstrates a lack of respect for others, especially those less fortunate than us,” the pope continued.
Let’s be clear: Francis was not singling out Trump. He never even mentioned him by name. But there are few world leaders who rival the U.S. president in pomposity, although Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte are among those who give Trump a good run for his money.
These three men—and a number of far-right, nationalist political candidates currently seeking power on the Old Continent—brashly present themselves as single-handed saviors of their respective nations. They are all linked by a closed-in, “my country first” attitude that is worrisome to the pope and his chief aides.
“Certainly, these types of insulation (chiusura) are not a good sign,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin said this past week.
The Vatican Secretary of State pointed out on February 14 in an interview on Italian state television that “many of these phenomena come from fear”.
And he added this warning:
“The inability to welcome and integrate can be dangerous. History teaches us this, and we hope that in this sense it will not be repeated.”
Other Catholic bishops from around the world share these same sentiments. But that doesn’t mean all the prelates or all the baptized faithful do. Pope Francis cannot be pleased that populist leaders on every continent have received support from a good chunk of the Catholic population—including Trump in the United States.
The U.S. president caused his most recent stir this week with a combative seventy-minute press conference that CNN, BBC, and other mainstream media called “bizarre”.
Even Shepherd Smith, a top anchor at Fox News (usually sympathetic to Trump), expressed anger at the way the president belittled reporters, especially the tone he used in dodging questions about his possible ties to Russia.
“It’s crazy what we’re watching every day, it’s absolutely crazy,” Smith said.
“(Trump) keeps repeating ridiculous throw away lines that are not true at all and sort of avoiding this issue of Russia as if we’re some kind of fools for asking the question,” he said.
How will the pope deal with Trump when the two men finally meet face-to-face?
They could hold their first meeting this spring when the U.S. president is in Italy for then next gathering of the Group of Seven (G7) major advanced economies. But the G7 Summit, which is schedule for May26-27, is taking place in the Sicilian tourist town of Taormina and there is no indication at this point whether Trump will even go to Rome.
While some have speculated that Francis would be willing to go to Sicily to meet the president, such a trip seems doubtful. The pope is making a pastoral visit to Genoa on May 27 and it is improbable he’d go to Sicily just to see Trump.
Nonetheless, Vatican officials have repeated the standard line that if any world leader were to ask to see the pope such a request would be granted.
However, some believe it would be unwise to extend any openness towards Trump, a propagandist known for peddling “alternative facts” and—as Shepherd Smith noted—“repeating ridiculous throw-away lines that are not true at all”.
They fear the president would try to manipulate a meeting with pope to shore up his standing at home and in the international community.
But Francis does not seem to be hampered by any such fears.
It is the U.S. president who should be concerned. Neither the pope nor his aides would allow Trump to get away with the type of shenanigans that helped propel him to the White House.
In fact, Pope Francis and the Holy See may be the last and most reliable check on the politics of fear and division that are being promoted by the U.S. president and other populist leaders around the globe.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri has begun an ambitious campaign to make sure the Church’s youngest members play a decisive role in shaping the agenda at the next gathering of the Synod of Bishops, scheduled for the autumn of 2018.
And there’s a good reason for that. The assembly’s theme is, “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment.”
The cardinal is the Synod’s secretary-general or main coordinator. He traveled from his Rome-based office to the central Italian city of Perugia this week where he told a large crowd of young Catholics they need to be “leaders not followers” of the Synod’s deliberations.
Cardinal Baldisseri went to Perugi to personally present the Synod 2018 preparatory document, which the Vatican released last month.
But he especially encouraged the young people to make their concerns known to the Synod’s general secretariat by responding to a questionnaire that will be available on his office’s website beginning on March 1.
“The data drawn from this site will be of great assistance in drafting the second preparatory document,” he said, a reference to the 2018 assembly’s instrumentum laboris or main working agenda.
“The contribution of everyone (groups, associations, and individuals) will determine whether this document reflects, faithfully or not, the situation and challenges the theme hopes to address,” he said.
Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Baldisseri to his current post early on to help reform and strengthen the Synod of Bishops as the main body for pastoral governance of the worldwide church. And part of the reform has been to include the voices of all Catholics in the synodal process of mutual listening, discernment, and journeying together.
Be assured that the cardinal’s on-line questionnaire is no public relations exercise to make Catholic kids think they have a voice, to then just ignore any views that don’t align neatly with longstanding church teaching and practice.
As we saw during the Synod assemblies of 2015 and 2016 on marriage and the family, Pope Francis takes seriously the concerns and the lived reality of people. That includes both those who are actively involved in the church and those who, for whatever reason, find themselves on its margins.
It was especially his solicitude for people in this second category (in this case, for example, couples in so-called “irregular” unions) that angered some doctrinal hardliners.
But the pope was not dissuaded or threatened by opposition to his efforts. He has continued to apply St Paul’s teaching that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35-39) and thus put us outside communion with the Holy People of God, the church.
Francis basically had asked the entire church, over the course of three or more years and two Synod assemblies, to “get real” about the current state of marriage and family life. He is now asking the bishops and the rest of us—but especially people “who are roughly 16 to 29 years old”—to take the pulse of the actual situation of young people today, specifically in regards to vocational discernment.
That will necessitate a continuation (and deepening) of discussions held at the previous two Synod gatherings since most young people feel the attraction (vocation) to marriage or some other sort of committed relationship to another person.
But it will also raise many issues related to the so-called “religious” vocations to the priesthood, diaconate, and consecrated life. If a wide section of Catholic young people share their views honestly, topics such as mandatory celibacy and the making of perpetual vows or promises as linked to such vocations will have to be addressed.
So will the exclusion of women and even gay-oriented men from ordained ministry have to be discussed, even though there certainly will be efforts to merely reinforce the current teaching and practice on all these matters.
The same people who criticized (and continue to criticize) Pope Francis and Cardinal Baldisseri over the process and outcome of the previous two Synod gatherings are already getting nervous about the 2018 assembly in Rome.
George Weigel, a professed Catholic neo-con and hagiographer of John Paul II, recently complained that the preparatory document “comprehensively ignores” his papal hero—“the contemporary saint who was a powerful magnet for young people during his twenty-six-year pontificate.”
Perhaps one of the reasons the Synod document “ignores” the now-sainted Polish pope is because of the type of people he inspired to the priesthood and religious life. According to Weigel, at least some of the characteristics of the John Paul II generation of church ministers include embracing “the symphony of Catholic truth in full,” being “countercultural Catholics” and seeing “the sacred character of the priesthood as a unique participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.”
He then goes on in a familiar disparaging tone.
“The church should ponder why Catholic Lite religious orders are dying, while religious orders that try to live the evangelical counsels and the consecrated life in a distinctive way are growing. The same seems true for seminaries,” he says.
One of those orders Weigel supported and praised for years was the Legionaries of Christ. Of course, this was the religious congregation most highly favored by John Paul II and his entourage.
For years Weigel denigrated those who for decades had accused the Legionaries’ founder, Marcel Macial, of sexual abuse and other improprieties. He kept up his criticism of Macial’s victims and their supporters until 2006 when Benedict XVI finally banished the disgraced priest to a life of prayer and penance for his immoral deeds.
Like John Paul II, Weigel saw the Legionaries as a fast-growing group of priests who were real Catholics, not part of some Catholic Lite. Both the late pope and his biographer refused to believe the truth about the Legionaries’ twisted founder.
Fortunately, Pope Francis suffers from no such ideological blindness.
In a closed-door conversation with heads of male religious orders last November (only recently published by La Civiltà Cattolica), the pope voiced concerns over certain congregations.
“Some are, I might say, ‘restorationist:’ they seem to offer security but instead give only rigidity. When they tell me that there is a congregation that draws so many vocations, I must confess that I worry,” he said.
“Others… seem like soldiers ready to do anything for the defense of faith and morals. And then some scandal emerges involving the founder...,” Francis continued.
His reference to Legionaries of Christ and Macial was obvious.
The pope has shown that he possesses a special gift for discerning what is of God and what is not. This comes not only from integrating the sound principles found in St. Ignatius’s famous Spiritual Exercises, but also from his years of experience as a pastor and an educator of young people, especially young religious.
Francis’s goal for the next Synod assembly is to further promote the art of discernment throughout the Church, beginning with its youngest members.
We leave him the last word (from his November talk):
“Discernment unites the issue of training young people for life: all young people, and in particular seminarians and future priests. Because the training and path that leads to the priesthood requires discernment.
“It is currently one of the biggest problems we have in priests’ training. In education we are used to dealing with black and white formulas, but not with the grey areas of life. And what matters is life, not formulas. We must grow in discernment.
“The logic of black and white can lead to abstract casuistry. Discernment, meanwhile, means moving forward through the grey of life according to the will of God. And the will of God is to be sought according to the true doctrine of the Gospel and not in the rigidity of an abstract doctrine.”