At the beginning of the week Pope Francis ended a six-day apostolic visit to our continent. He visited Kenya, Uganda and the war-torn Central African Republic (CAR). In all three countries large numbers turned out, lining streets – often rows deep – to see the Pope.
Pope Francis is the first pope in living memory that has travelled into an active war zone. He said that he travels as a “pilgrim of peace” to CAR. The Vatican was warned that this trip was high risk but Francis insisted that he wanted to visit CAR. He jokingly told the pilot of his flight from Uganda to CAR that if the plane could not land on Sunday he would use a parachute! When he was personally asked if he was not worried about security he replied saying that the only thing that he was afraid of in Africa were mosquitoes.
Although Francis had a specific message for each location he visited, a number of over-arching themes were clear: poverty and exclusion, corruption, good governance, the environment, climate change, inter-religious dialogue and reconciliation. These were messages not just for the countries he visited but, indeed, for the whole continent and the world. By stressing many of these themes, Francis not only reminds the Church what its agenda should be but also keeps the issues on the global agenda.
In every country the pope spoke about the need to protect the environment – something that he is concerned about and also something on the global agenda because the COP21 Conference opened in Paris towards the end of his voyage. The pope believes that there is a clear link between the protection of nature and building a just and equitable social order.
In a meeting with the UN in Nairobi, Francis said some of the most forceful things yet about climate change. He said that the COP21 meeting is an important stage of developing a new global energy system which must be built on 3 pillars: “minimal use of fossil fuels, energy efficiency and use of energy sources with little or no carbon content.” He said that a failure in Paris to eliminate carbon use would be “catastrophic.” He lamented a growing “global indifference” to millions who suffer because of the effects of climate change.
Papal press conferences in-flight are always something to take note of. This trip was no different. On the flight back to Rome Francis warned against religious fundamentalism. He said, “We Catholics have some – and not some, many – who believe in the absolute truth and go ahead dirtying the other with calumny, with disinformation, and doing evil.” He went on to say that they do evil, “I say this because it is my church. We have to combat it. Religious fundamentalism is not religious, because it lacks God. It is idolatry, like the idolatry of money.”
Once again Pope Francis has shown himself to be an exceptional leader and given us all much food for thought.
Fr Russell Pollitt, S.J.