The First Postcolonial Pope?
It may be too early in the relatively new pontificate of Pope Francis to make such strong claims about the potential signs of postcolonial awareness and sensitivity on the part of the current Bishop of Rome. Yet, a consistent thread of continuous admonition and reading of the Gospel through daily homilies and catechesis suggest there might be something to consider about the ostensible shift in the papal worldview. There are the superficial factors that one might rightly take into consideration, although with an effort to avoid overstatement, including the fact that this pope is the first from the Global South, which also makes him the first from a Latin-American nation, which also makes him the first from a nation whose entire history has been marred by European colonialism in a way that no previous pontiff has known. He is the first non-European Bishop of Rome in more than one thousand years.
There is also his vocal expressions of solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten, the immigrant, and the stranger. If the subaltern could speak and, even more impossibly Gayatri Spivak might add, if a pope could speak for the subaltern (which is, understandably, contradictory in so many ways), perhaps Francis would be the one most capable of the task. His words are words of exhortation to heed what liberation theologians like Gutiérrez and Sobrino have said for decades: the church of the poor is the church.
Despite these superficial reasons, or perhaps in addition to them, what has captured my attention in recent days and led me to ask the question that titles this post, is the visit Pope Francis made to the island of Lampedusa last week. In his homily during a mass celebrated there, the pope began with these powerful words:
Immigrants who died at sea, from that boat that, instead of being a way of hope was a way of death. This is the headline in the papers! When, a few weeks ago, I heard the news – which unfortunately has been repeated so many time – the thought always returns as a thorn in the heart that brings suffering. And then I felt that I ought to come here today to pray, to make a gesture of closeness, but also to reawaken our consciences so that what happened would not be repeated. Not repeated, please!
Reflecting on the first reading from the Book of Genesis, Pope Francis asks — as God does in the scripture — “Where are you?” and “Where is your brother?”
These two questions resonate even today, with all their force! So many of us, even including myself, are disoriented, we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live, we don’t care, we don’t protect that which God has created for all, and we are unable to care for one another. And when this disorientation assumes worldwide dimensions, we arrive at tragedies like the one we have seen.
“Where is your brother?” the voice of his blood cries even to me, God says. This is not a question addressed to others: it is a question addressed to me, to you, to each one of us. These our brothers and sisters seek to leave difficult situations in order to find a little serenity and peace, they seek a better place for themselves and for their families – but they found death. How many times to those who seek this not find understanding, do not find welcome, do not find solidarity! And their voices rise up even to God! And once more to you, the residents of Lampedusa, thank you for your solidarity! I recently heard one of these brothers. Before arriving here, he had passed through the hands of traffickers, those who exploit the poverty of others; these people for whom the poverty of others is a source of income. What they have suffered! And some have been unable to arrive!
The situation at Lampedusa is emblematic of the worldwide plight of those who are exploited, abandoned, abused, forgotten, and left for dead. They are the nobodies, the people who cannot speak, the ones who have no resources or recourse. As the pope notes, so many of these immigrants risk everything — their lives and the lives of their loved ones — to seek something slightly better than the squalor and misery the world has forced upon them.
And it is forced upon them. Abject poverty is not part of God’s plan for creation. It is the result of our sin, for what we have done and, perhaps especially, for what we have failed to do.
Here is the most powerful of points in Pope Francis’s homily, which is well-worth quoting at length. It is here that the pontiff, who has been over the course of centuries symbolically representative of the European colonization of the two-thirds world, it is here that the pope makes a historic shift in pontifical outlook:
Today no one in the world feels responsible for this; we have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility; we have fallen into the hypocritical attitude of the priest and of the servant of the altar that Jesus speaks about in the parable of the Good Samaritan: We look upon the brother half dead by the roadside, perhaps we think “poor guy,” and we continue on our way, it’s none of our business; and we feel fine with this. We feel at peace with this, we feel fine! The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference. In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business…
We are a society that has forgotten the experience of weeping, of “suffering with”: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep! In the Gospel we have heard the cry, the plea, the great lament: “Rachel weeping for her children . . . because they are no more.” Herod sowed death in order to defend his own well-being, his own soap bubble. And this continues to repeat itself. Let us ask the Lord to wipe out [whatever attitude] of Herod remains in our hears; let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty in the world, in ourselves, and even in those who anonymously make socio-economic decisions that open the way to tragedies like this. “Who has wept?” Who in today’s world has wept?
The critique of globalization rooted in faith, in scripture, in tradition, is striking. Those who unthinkingly participate in institutions and systems of global commerce — which is all of us in the United States, for example, if only by proxy — are responsible. We are responsible in some part for the plight of others, for the subjugation of the majority of the world, for the blood of our sisters and brothers. But do we even weep? As the pope asks, “who in today’s world has wept?”