The Pope has world diplomacies reeling

Blunt, direct, unpredictable. Pope Francis’ international policy is like his church: “it's full of surprises”.

Even though the Vatican has the world’s most extensive diplomatic network with its nunciatures, dioceses, parishes, convents and ecclesiastical centres, Pope Francis himself gives short shrift to diplomacy. He has shown this many times on the world stage. Unpredictable, forthright and original, the pope often deliberately surprises and unsettles with words and gestures or his choice of apostolates and the church’s ad gentes missions beyond Vatican City walls.

His first trip outside Rome was to the surprise destination of Lampedusa, the tiny island between the first and third worlds, a gateway for migrants trying to enter Europe and symbol of so many tragic deaths at sea. One of his first speeches examined how the world’s peripheries are both social and psychological. Indeed, the pope has continued to privilege the globe’s marginalised, changing the papacy’s perspective by visiting places such as Albania, South Korea, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. 

Pope Francis believes that “the church must always surprise” because “a church that doesn’t have the capacity to surprise is a weak, sickened and dying church. It must be taken to the recovery room immediately”.

Such actions wrong-foot commentators and are in a sense revolutionary, often bucking powerful trends, diplomatic conventions, centuries-old traditions and major powers’ strategies. And they have borne fruit. For instance, on 7 September 2013, when a formidable military campaign was set to be unleashed in Syria, the pope organised a prayer vigil at St Peter’s, invoking assistance from Mary, the queen of peace: “In the silence of the cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue and peace is spoken”. The event did help still the winds of war.

This year, Pope Francis convened an unprecedented prayer vigil in the Vatican gardens with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents, Shimon Peres and Abu Mazen, in the presence of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. This prayer meeting in the name of the three major monotheistic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) was to encourage dialogue on the eternal Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The embrace between Peres and Mazen at the event has gone down in history.

It was a surprise meeting and very daring for the speed and improvisation with which it was organised. Half an hour before the ceremony, the two protagonists had still not decided what they would say. But that encounter, the ad-libbed words and the embrace between the two leaders had an incendiary effect in the Arab world. The embrace angered many, irritating hawks on both sides. And it is probably no coincidence that just days later, three unfortunate Israeli teenagers were kidnapped, sparking a chain of repercussions that led to the umpteenth war between Israel and Palestine and more tears and gnashing of teeth on both sides, with significant loss of civilian life as well.

On that occasion, Francis gave the kind of slightly paradoxical speech to which we are now growing accustomed. “Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare”, he said. “It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict: yes to dialogue and no to violence; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities; yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation; yes to sincerity and no to duplicity”. The pontiff stressed, “The church is not resigned to being innocuous” or just a “decorative element” in the world.

Francis has even cast a critical eye on the past, not just our present time and space, surprising everyone. Having once reminded followers “a Christian with no memory is not a true Christian”, he has held Turkey accountable for its historical responsibility for the Metz Yeghern (Great Evil), the Armenians’ name for the genocide they suffered 100 years ago at the hands of the Turkish government for whom the subject is still taboo.

During a mass in St. Peter’s Basilica marking the centenary of the start of the mass killings, Francis noted that in the last century, “Our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies. The first, which is widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century struck your own Armenian people”. This elicited great controversy. Even the grand mufti, Turkey’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, attacked the pope, saying accusations of genocide were “without foundation”. But Francis has stood by his declarations. And afterwards turned his attentions to the Caribbean. The new Cuba libre has been achieved in part thanks to the Argentinean pope, who brokered mediation between Havana and Washington. He fostered dialogue between the most ardently communist Castro brother, Raul, and US President Barack Obama. This led to the historic deal that eased the US embargo on Cuba and re-established diplomatic relations. The Catholic Church orchestrated intensive diplomatic efforts through Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Cuba, and the US Secretary of State.

It was a Cuban miracle: even dyed-in-the-wool Marxist Raul Castro had an hour-long private audience with the pope and came away saying it would be good to mark the end of the embargo with a mass. Castro even said that if the pope keeps going the way he is going, he’d return to the Catholic Church. He was quick to stress a specific link with the pontiff too since he and his brother Fidel had studied at Jesuit schools.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio – the pope of the new age of globalisation, the man who railed against unbridled capitalism in speeches to the poor in Paraguay and Ecuador, author of the encyclical on climate change “Laudato sì” – even managed to catch the EU on the hop, siding with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Greek people against the European bankers.

He once again shuffled the cards, this time in the cocooned corridors of Brussels, and will likely continue to do in the four corners of the earth until the end of his papacy. 

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