The pope pays the price for breaking silence

I have had the privilege of observing Pope Francis up close on two apostolic voyages this year. In March he travelled to Morocco and, this past week, he visited Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius – I was present in Port Louis for his eight-hour visit to the Island.

I was struck, once again, by how easily Pope Francis relates to people. The excitement of the crowd and their joy at seeing him was palpable. Many of the people I spoke to in Mauritius explained how they felt Francis understands the struggles of real life. As one said, “He talks about things that matter to us.” It is estimated around 200,000 people were present for the Pope’s short visit to the Indian Ocean island. The day before, 1 million people gathered for mass with him in Madagascar.

Ordinary folk, the poor, downcast and marginalised, have a sixth sense: they know they are close to Francis’ heart. He articulates their struggles in a way that the world knows what they are going through. He articulates them in a way that the poor are given assurance that they have someone on their side.

But his advocacy for the poor has angered the comfortable. Francis recognises that systemic change in our societal structures, economic systems and church is necessary. Some status-conscious privileged Catholics don’t like this.

On his way to Africa he was presented, informally, with a book entitled How Americans Want to Change the Pope, written by La Croix journalist Nicolas Senèze. The book describes how wealthy, traditionalist Americans (both lay and clergy), relentlessly attack the Pope. Senèze says that it is a “small minority” but that they have amplified space. Any scan of some of the so-called Catholic “orthodox” right-wing media reveals the vitriol against Francis.

In response to Senèze, Francis said that he was “honoured that the Americans attack him”. This caused another media storm. Many Americans were angry with the pontiff’s response. The Vatican later clarified what he meant: “In an informal context, the Pope wished to say that he always considers criticisms as an honour.”

The Pope’s comments indicate that he is aware of those who are trying to delegitimise him or undermine him or silence him.

This week, on twitter, a South African lawyer, Marc Aupiais (who administered a Facebook page ­­– South African Catholics) tweeted “I think Catholics need to start praying for the death of Pope Francis, to be honest”. When people reacted he deleted the tweet (of course nothing is ever deleted!) and blocked any opposition. Soon after he wrote on Facebook: “I prayed that he resign or die so that we can get a new pope, because he seems to be straying so badly from the bible.” Praying for someone to die hardly captures much Christian charity.

A striking contrast. Francis has broken the silence about the plight of the poor, migrants, refugees, the destruction of the earth etc. Silence protects the privileged, it assumes and assures entitlement, it suits those who have a stake in maintaining the status quo and in doing so impose their asymmetrical moral code. Pope Francis sometimes personally pays the price. But, for many ordinary people, he is, really, their only hope.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church. @rpollittsj
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