Hearing Francis through the ears of politics




We believe only what we want to believe, George Orwell observed in 1945. “So far as I can see,” he wrote in the Partisan Review:

[A]ll political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome. … I believe that it is possible to be more objective than most of us are, but that it involves a moral effort. One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.

George Orwell, “London Letter”Partisan Review (Winter, 1945)

Orwell’s theory of subjectivity is being tested by reporters covering Francis’ trip to Brazil. While the pope has been spared predictions his trip will be a disaster — a press theme peddled in the run up to Benedict’s trips to Germany, the UK and Mexico subsequently proven wrong each time — the reporting I have seen so far from Brazil has tended to confirm Orwell’s dictum.

Take The Guardian‘s account of the pope’s activities on July 23, for example. The article entitled “Pope in Brazil warns against legalising drugs” summarizes comments made by Francis at a Rio drug rehabilitation clinic and his sermon earlier that day before 200,000 pilgrims at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida. The Guardian does not focus on what Francis said, but on the political ramifications of what it heard him say. Hearing only politics The Guardian was deaf to the true story.

The article opens with:

Pope Francis entered political waters on Wednesday with a sharply worded condemnation of moves to legalise drug use. His comments, which were made during a visit to a rehabilitation centre in Brazil, run counter to a growing movement in Latin America to liberalise sales of marijuana and other narcotics following decades of a murderous and largely ineffectual war against drugs in the region.

The article quotes Francis views on the evils of drug abuse and offers background on the politics of narcotics law reform in South America and then transitions to the sermon at the Basilica.

Earlier on Wednesday Francis urged Catholics to resist the “ephemeral idols” of money, power, success and pleasure during his first mass in Brazil. He made no direct mention of the inequality and corruption that have sparked nationwide protests. In a sermon to a congregation of thousands at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida, the pontiff appealed to the faithful to focus on non-material values of spiritualism, generosity, solidarity and perseverance.

A quote is offered from the sermon followed by analysis and background.

Vatican officials say the pontiff asked for the mass at the basilica, which is 160 miles (260km) from his base in Rio, to be added to his schedule. Built in 1955 with a capacity of 40,000, the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida – the principal patroness of Brazil and a unifying figure for many in the nation’s Catholic Church. It is the site of pilgrimage for millions every year who flock to see an apparently dark-skinned statue of the Virgin Mary which, myth has it, was found in two parts by fishermen in 1717.

Before moving back to the sermon with these colour quotes:

Francis appeared moved to tears as he said a prayer before the statue. He had visited the site five years earlier at a conference of bishops which helped to raise his standing in the church. Underscoring the emphasis on humility, hope and simplicity that have become central themes of his papacy, Francis warned that almost everyone was attracted to wealth and pleasure.

“Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols,” he said, speaking in Portuguese from a modern marble pulpit.

The close starts with the voice of an expert, who contrasts Francis’ humility against Benedict’s and John Paul’s prelacy and intellectualism (unfair to my mind) and ends with politics.

This visit comes during a nationwide wave of social protests. … Several more protests are planned this week including three related directly to the pope’s visit, according to Anonymous social networks that have been calling people to the streets.

Given the facts set forth in the story, which are roughly similar to reports from Reuters and AFP, The Guardian‘s evaluation of the pope’s statements would not appear unreasonable. However, a look at what Francis said in his homily challenges this view.

The theme of his homily at the shrine, Francis said, was:

… three simple attitudes: hopefulness, openness to being surprised by God, and living in joy.

Speaking of hopefulness, Francis said:

How many difficulties are present in the life of every individual, among our people, in our communities; yet as great as these may seem, God never allows us to be overwhelmed by them. In the face of those moments of discouragement we experience in life, in our efforts to evangelize or to embody our faith as parents within the family, I would like to say forcefully: Always know in your heart that God is by your side; he never abandons you! Let us never lose hope! Let us never allow it to die in our hearts!

But The Guardian interpreted this to mean:

“Let us never lose hope! Let us never allow it to die in our hearts!” the pope said in a message that appeared to be aimed at the widespread consumerism that the Vatican has blamed for a decline in spirituality, rather than the specific individuals and institutions targeted by demonstrators in recent weeks.

No, that is not what he was saying. The pull quotes about consumerism found in most press reports are subordinate clauses. The point Francis was making was the reality and necessity of a personal relationship with God. And the Catholic Church was the entry to this relationship.

“What of it”, you might ask? Soft and spongy god-talk does not make for strong news stories or entertain The Guardian readers of Islington. Yet, if you focus on the god-talk, the Marian imagery, and the “Let us trust God!” stanzas that asks the believer to “stay with him, what seems to be cold water, difficulty, sin, is changed into the new wine of friendship with him,” you see the pope’s point is not politics, but the invigoration, the transformation of the believer.

“Well, that’s what pope’s say,” you may well think. The Guardian has merely cut back the foliage to reveal the underlying social justice message and linked it to the protests reported at the top and close of the story.

Perhaps, but what I hear when I read the homily is a pope who is responding to the loss of Catholics to Pentecostal and Evangelical churches who promise an intimate relationship with God. The Catholic faith can and will provide this transforming relationship, the pope is saying. The issue is faith.

By leading with the drugs comments over the homily, and focusing on the political implications of a few clauses, The Guardian has missed the real story. It need not accept the claims put forward by the pope, but it should nonetheless seek to understand him — being mindful of Orwell’s words: “One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.”

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  • Martha O’Keeffe

    “an apparently dark-skinned statue of the Virgin Mary which, myth has it, was found in two parts by fishermen in 1717.”

    Where do I start with this part – let’s see: the Pope blessing the crowd with the statue – sure looks “dark-skinned” to me! Possibly because it’s a clay statue? And the tradition of “Black Madonnas” is a real, pre-exisitng, actual Catholic thing, so what is “The Guardian” trying to say with this “apparently” – this was a white-skinned statue faked up to look native in order to hook the gullible locals because priestcraft, Romanism, Jesuit plots, secret conspiracies, ambitions to rule the world, the Borgia Popes and Bloody Mary (insert favourite Reformation talking-point of your own)?

    And if you’re not going to take the story of its finding seriously, then you say “legend”, not “myth”. A small point to be sure, but let’s put it in context: the legend of King William on a white horse at the Battle of the Boyne is a different thing from saying King William is a “myth” – in one instance, it is a false or disproven claim for a historical personage who really existed, in the other, it’s a person who never was. Seeing as how there is a statue of Our Lady of Aparecida, it fits in with 18th century images, and there is a history for it, then if you don’t credit the account of its finding, that’s a legend.

    I won’t discuss the politics because that’s frankly depressing and the usual tripe.