I am not an admirer of popes for their own sake or their holiness, but for the part they play in bringing their influence to bear on communicating what is, essentially, a secular message in the secular world.
Separation of church and state, give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s, is the way it should be. But this does not mean that a figure so influential should not seek to bring his weight to bear in the secular world where human beings are treated atrociously, and to shame us by example into thinking and acting differently. In this, the pope’s role would be similar to that of a charismatic politician or rock star turned campaigner, who manages to focus world attention on an ongoing catastrophe that we might otherwise ignore. Except, of course, that the pope’s message carries more credibility as a leader of men and the best-known living Christian.
I admired Pope John Paul II for the part he played in helping focus our minds on the horrors of an Iron Curtain and European communism, in which people were kept prisoners of the state, and that we took completely for granted as a fact of life because we had grown up with it that way. I admired him for using his influence and his position to help bring all that down, initially with his backing for the Solidarnosc movement in his native Poland, which is where it all began. You could say that the pope had no business meddling in politics – but that wasn’t politics, but human rights abuse on a massive and entrenched scale. And if Christian leaders do not concern themselves with matters like that, precisely what is their purpose?
I think I am going to like Pope Francis for much the same reasons. His first big official trip is not a state visit of pomp and circumstance, to celebrate mass for a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people of his faith. He is flying to Lampedusa on Monday, to see the migrants. He will go in his role as a religious leader, but not in his role as a leader of the faithful. He will go, quite simply, to set an example to the rest of us, including those who do not share his faith but especially to those who do, who tend to be the most vocal and hateful towards those who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean because they are desperate.
As southern Europe discusses the ‘European problem of illegal immigration’, he will by this gesture remind us that the immigrants themselves are, in fact, the ones who have really serious problems, and that they are human beings, individuals, who should not be spoken of in terms of a natural disaster, biblical plague or in any other such dehumanising language.
His office says that while he is in Lampedusa, Pope Francis will cast a wreath into the sea in memory of the many thousands of people who have died in that relatively short stretch of savage water, some of them after having succeeded in making the horrendous journey through the Sahara. And yes, he will say mass, but it will be at the migrants’ reception centre.
Where does this leave us? It should leave us deep in thought. Last week our prime minister, his family and a government delegation paid a much-publicised visit to Pope Francis at the Vatican. Before and since, the prime minister has talked about the need for ‘burden-sharing’, about Malta’s problems with immigrants, about how all of this is unfair on Malta. Nowhere has there been a note of compassion for so many people suffering and dying in horrific conditions. Even those who make it, who come out alive at the other end and find themselves with refugee status, have a lifetime of hardship ahead of them. Their memories are painful, their family relationships and friendships have been truncated, cauterised or destroyed completely. They will never see home again.
Yes, Pope Francis’s visit to Lampedusa will be the answer, the example, so many people need. No doubt, some will turn against him for this, or criticise him for doing it. But popes, we sometimes forget, are not there to be loved. They are they to remind us what we should be doing, where we are going wrong in our behaviour towards large groups of people. If in the course of that they end up loved or even just admired, so much the better – though I seriously doubt that they care. This one certainly seems to have his priorities in order.