“His very presence tears down barriers,” Joseph Donnelly says of Pope Francis. The pope, he says, “exudes tenderness, mercy, joyful attentiveness and accompaniment.
“He is as real as it gets.”
It’s safe to say that Donnelly, the Permanent Delegate to the United Nations for the Catholic relief and development agency Caritas Internationalis, is a fan of the pope, but he’s also a fellow who knows what it takes to get things accomplished at the United Nations, where the pope will speak on Friday. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this week, the U.N. is confronting some major geo-political issues this general assembly week, including crisis in the Middle East and a new 15-year agenda for sustainable development that merely seeks to redefine efforts to end extreme poverty, confront global inequalities and tackle climate change. The assembly may be looking for all the guidance it can get—divine-ish or otherwise. Donnelly reports overhearing no less a figure that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once enthusing over the pope at a U.N. reception: “It’s true we don’t do religion at the U.N., but we need inspiration, and he is totally inspiring.”
The pope’s transformative abilities will surely be put to the test this week, first in Washington during his unprecedented address to Congress and later during his general assembly address at the United Nations.
Will his speech be worth the traffic snarls the pontiff’s presence will generate? Donnelly sure thinks so—his wish list for Francis at the U.N. is a long one. He hopes to hear the pope speak on migration issues, the protection of Christian minorities in the Middle East and global warming, among other issues.
“Laudato Si,’” the pope’s so-called green encyclical, “transformed the global conversation,” says Donnelly, “not because it is Catholic Social Teaching or doctrine or a religious leader speaking, but because it is from the heart of a man before God and His people.”
When the member flags are raised at the United Nations on Friday, the Vatican flag will be raised for the first time ahead of Pope Francis’ visit. The Holy See became the unexpected beneficiary of a successful campaign by the Palestinian delegation to have the flags of non-member observer states raised alongside full member states. The Vatican and Palestine are the only such observer states at the United Nations.
It’s likely the pope will refrain from commenting on the flag micro-controversy. He will surely have larger concerns on his mind.
While the subject matter of his speech will be familiar to anyone following the recent headlines out of Europe, Iraq and other world trouble spots, Pope Francis will speak not as a political figure, a technical expert or a high U.N. official, but as a pastor, religious leader, prophet and father. That’s the assessment Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the world body, offered to reporters in a briefing on Sept. 21. Archbishop Auza thinks that Pope Francis will challenge world leaders to eradicate extreme poverty and protect people from mass atrocities; he will call upon them to act mercifully toward the downtrodden.
He believes the pope will remind the members of the general assembly that there can be no peace if development is not equitable. “Countries that have many blessings … will be summoned to assist those who do not yet have them to the same degree, or at all,” he told reporters.
The United Nations has experienced failures in protecting vulnerable populations, according to the archbishop. “We have always said, ‘Never again!’ on every anniversary of every genocide and every mass atrocity, yet these same things are happening in our times before our very own eyes,” he said. Atrocities are a root cause of the current crisis of migration in Europe, he explained, yet only one-third of the arrivals are from areas of persecution.
Pope Francis is expected to stress that the globalization of solidarity is the antidote to the globalization of indifference, he added. “If he speaks of human rights and dignity, it will be with the understanding that those blessed will full enjoyment of fundamental freedoms will feel solidarity to promote and protect the rights and dignity of those whose fundamental rights have been trampled,” he said.
The pope will address the general assembly in his native tongue, Spanish, and though he is famous for remarkable adventures off-script, Archbishop Auza does not expect too many rhetorical surprises at the United Nations “because that’s a very solemn occasion.” We’ll see.
Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, advocates for global debt relief and economic justice, calls the pope’s New York address a “historic opportunity at a historic time.”
LeCompte said, “Pope Francis consistently connects religious teachings on compassion and mercy to the specific debt, tax and trade policies that impact millions of the world’s poorest people. I expect him to continue to make those connections at the U.N.—to encourage world leaders to support structures and policies that benefit the most vulnerable. With debt crises in Greece and Puerto Rico and global momentum for reforms that benefit the poor, now is a critical time.”
LeCompte adds that Pope Francis has called for a global bankruptcy process for nations in economic distress. “I do hope he will raise that issue again at the U.N., where 136 countries just voted to adopt debt principles to help countries in crisis—principles that move us toward a global bankruptcy process. This is a common sense reform that will benefit the poorest and help prevent the type of financial crisis we see today in Greece and Argentina,” LeCompte says.
“Most of all, however, I hope—and expect—that the pope will continue to provide a moral framework for global economic policy making. A framework that says we must invest in people, help the poor and build an inclusive global economy—a global Jubilee.” Pope Francis, he says, “leads by example and his leadership is critical to addressing these specific economic policies. I’m thrilled he’ll have the world’s attention this week in Washington and New York.”
Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, notes that “like his recent predecessors, Pope Francis will address the world body at a critical time for our global family.”
As to what Pope Francis may say… “The Holy Father has already given indications regarding much of what he will say, although there is always room for surprises,” Bishop Cantú says. “He has made no secret of the fact that he wants to affirm a global commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, to reduce poverty and address the needs of those at the margins of our world. He is particularly concerned about the family, especially the most vulnerable. He is also looking to encourage a positive outcome at December’s climate talks in Paris.”
Bishop Cantú adds, “To free up resources for the protection of natural and human ecology, he may well call for cuts in arms expenditures, especially for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Instead he will promote dialogue and encounter as ways to resolve conflict. I have Cuba, Columbia and Iran in mind as recent examples.”
Drew Christiansen, S.J., the former editor-in-chief of America and currently Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, hopes to hear Pope Francis “raise the need for new global arrangements for handling the movement of peoples, both refugees and migrants, as needed in this time of fragile states in a global world.” And on a more technical note, he adds, “I most would want him to call for full funding for agencies supporting refugees: UNCHR, World Food Program, etc.”
But what Christiansen most wants is to hear Pope Francis address nuclear disarmament, “including the repudiation of deterrence as a justification for retaining and modernizing nuclear arsenals.”
The Vatican’s recently reasserted desire for the abolition of nuclear weapons, in fact, may provoke an endorsement of the controversial—at least to the U.S. Congress—Iran deal, Archbishop Auza told reporters. He explained that the agreement should be seen as an “example of what the international community can do when there is goodwill and dialogue.”
Msgr. John E. Kozar is president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. His agency has been run ragged in recent years in efforts to respond to the brutal Syrian conflict and the merciless onslaught of ISIS terrorists against Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq. CNEWA supports displaced people and refugees throughout the region.
“Unquestionably, His Holiness will speak to the international community about the global responsibility in caring for the men, women and children fleeing religious persecution, the horrors of war and environmental fears,” Kozar says. “I hope, too, that he addresses the plight of those families who remain in their own backyards, as it were, homeless, exhausted, hungry and thirsty. And I pray he calls our nation, and all peoples of good will, to work together for justice, peace and respect for all creation.”
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA looks forward to hearing Pope Francis discuss the ongoing refugee crisis, too, according to JRS spokesperson Christian Fuchs. The UN’s own refugee agency, UNHCR, has noted the world is in the midst of the worst such crisis since World War II.
“People are on the move,” Fuchs says, and “JRS witnesses this in the more than 45 countries in which we work.
“In an interview recently Pope Francis noted that migration is a reality of our world. We hope he will remind the United Nations and those they represent to welcome the stranger, to welcome refugees and the displaced into their communities.”
Fuchs adds, “We know refugees and immigrants want to become self sufficient and contributing members of their communities. No one leaves their home and risks perilous journeys across deserts, be those deserts in southern Arizona or northern Africa, to seek a handout. No one boards a small vessel to cross the Mediterranean or the Andaman Sea for government benefits.
“People undertake risky journeys,” Fuchs says, “because they are in fear of their lives and they seek a better life for their families. They want to work legally and be good neighbors to their host communities.”
JRS officials, according to Fuchs, also look forward to hearing the pope speak about renewing efforts to bring peace. “He has been a catalyst in the recent renewal of U.S. – Cuba relationships,” Fuchs says, “and we believe his words can urge governments to renew political efforts at peace at reconciliation in areas from the Central African Republic to Syria. Within Syria, JRS staff is comprised of both Muslims and Christians, and most of them are volunteers. We see first hand the peace and reconciliation movements by civil society, and hope that governments can follow suit.”
Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, believes the pope is “probably going to echo ‘Laudato Si,’ where he states our need to preserve ‘resources for present and future generations’ and moderate consumption.
“He continually brings the conversation back around to the poor, which is to remind us, again and again, of our connection to all,” Carolan says. “Our actions affect those of the poor.”
Conversion is the outcome Carolan hopes to see from the pope’s address in New York and the other significant speech he will offer the day before in Washington before Congress. “I want to see Congress [members] squirming in their seats, uncomfortable in their defiance to consider policies that would help the whole of the Earth,” he says. “I would love to see Pope Francis call out Congress with this quote: (‘Laudato Si’’ #57) ‘What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?’”
“Pope Francis has seized the attention of the U.N., of member states, of the international community in inspiring, historic ways,” Caritas’s Donnelly says.
“He is speaking to the world. He is speaking to each of us, one by one by one,” he says. “His personal engagement, his moral imperative is changing how the U.N and international community are looking at enormous global issues.” Francis has told everyone to go out to the periphery, Donnelly adds, to resist the globalization of indifference.
“We must step out of our old comfort zones,” this long-time U.N. observer says. “As he has learned to see others, to listen to every human being, to truly care, he invites us to be more thoroughly human. He reminds us that all people matter always, that on one can be left behind.”