As a very occasional blogger, it has occurred to me that I have at times used this space as a sort of rant: a veritable digital soapbox where I can electronically shake my fist at “the powers that be” over the injustices that still too often plague our globe. While I still I do think that it is the duty of concerned Catholics to raise our voices – digital and otherwise – out of concern for the unfairness of this world – and especially for those on the margins – at this particular time of year I also believe that we should recall, and be grateful for, the many good things that we have in our lives. One particular perk that I’d like to give special thanks for is one I enjoy as a benefit of working in for the Justice and Peace ministry here at Catholic Charities: all of the great invitations I receive to some pretty wonderful events. There is one in particular I’d love to share a bit about that was held this past Monday evening.
As a result of the generosity of the Archdiocesan Office of Black Ministries, and the Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund here at the Archdiocese, as well as the group Allied Faith and Family and the Weinstein Group- – I had the opportunity to attend a private screening of the new movie: “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”, which is not scheduled for general release until this coming Friday. The film itself was extraordinary, detailing the events from the equally extraordinary life of President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, from roughly the beginning of his public life up through his long imprisonment by South African authorities for his work in opposition to that government’s Apartheid system of racial discrimination, to his release and eventual election to the presidency of that country after its first multi-racial free election. The picture, adapted from Mandela’s own autobiography, is beautifully filmed with wonderful vistas of the African countryside featured prominently, and the subject matters that the movie touches upon – from repression to liberation to imprisonment and eventually to triumph – are profound enough to, I think, eventually have it regarded as an epic film. It is the personal portrait that it paints of President Mandela and his struggles with the leadership of the African National Congress and the Anti-Apartheid movement, however that I think are particularly noteworthy. Often times at the conclusion of a particularly great leader’s life, accounts of their deeds are recalled in a haliographic fashion, where these great men – and of course women – seem to trod among ordinary mortals, ever assured of their convictions and ever triumphant in their efforts. This movie suffers from little of that: growing out of a hatred of the way that native South African people were treated in their own country, it shows Mandela early on as a man of justice who – despite his flaws and very human defects – undertakes a lifelong crusade to end the racially discriminatory practices of his country by using any means necessary, up to and including violence. It is only later on -during and after his 27 year imprisonment for his anti-apartheid politics where he loses just about everything meaningful in his life: his possessions, his family, even his limited freedom – that we witness President Mandela begin to change. Never giving up on the belief in the his own dignity and the dignity of his own people, Mandela gradually comes to realize that for all their power, his white oppressors lived in perpetual fear of their own minority status – their own ultimate powerlessness – and that it was from that fear that all of their actions were twisted into the atrocity that was Apartheid. It was during this period that Mandela’s struggle became about more than just opposing white rule, and grew to be about affirming the human dignity of all. So much so that after his release from prison – when the country was on the brink of violent revolution – Mandela risked his reputation and leadership of the anti-apartheid cause, and the respect of his own wife, to appear on television to address his nation, declaring his forgiveness of those who had imprisoned and taken so much from him. His actions that night have been credited by many for helping South Africa to avoid a violent, racially polarized civil war, and to helping that wounded nation move toward a racially integrated healing. It is through such actions that President Mandela became more than just a man of justice for his people, but became equally a man of forgiveness and, ultimately – a man of peace. Thankfully despite recent illnesses, President Mandela’s long life and example on this Earth is – as of this writing – not yet completed, but certainly the people of South Africa – and the entire world – should be grateful for the extraordinary example that his life is to all of us.
On the ride home in the cab that night – contemplating the movie that I just saw – I began to reflect on the incredible leadership President Mandela has given the world, and how lucky we are to still have him with us. I recalled many conversations I’ve had over the past couple years about Nelson Mandela, and what his life and example have meant for the world, and how often those same conversations had ended in lamentation over the dearth of world leaders today who demonstrate the moral courage, growth and gravitas that a President Mandela did. Smiling to myself, I recalled that I often would join in that same lamentation too – but no more! I strongly believe – as the old cliché goes –that “there’s a new sheriff in town” - or, in this case, on the world stage – who possesses some of the self-same “gravitas” that Mandela does, and – just as the old cliché goes as well – he too wears a white outfit…but it is there the analogy stops. The person I am thinking of definitely does not carry – or even possess I’m sure – a Colt 45 and a round of silver bullets, and he is not a fictional hero come on the scene to save the day. Instead, he is a very flesh and blood septuagenarian who goes by the name of Francis.
There has already been plenty of ink spilled across newsprint – and bytes expended on the blogosphere – about our Pope Francis: about what kind of Pope he is, and about what his Papacy will mean to the Church and the world. I don’t intend to render my opinion here regarding these matters. Instead would like to share with you just a bit of why Pope Francis moves me as a leader, and why I count his leadership of our Church as one of the particular things I am most grateful for in this season of thanksgiving.
A man of justice, from the very beginning of his papacy less than one year ago – when he announced the choice of his new name as the same as the “little poor man of Assisi” – Pope Francis has bound together the work of the Church with particular care and concern for the poor and suffering of this world, to the point that – in the birthplace of Saint Francis on his Feast Day this past October – he stated his desire that the Church truly be a “Church of the Poor”. A man of forgiveness, Pope Francis just concluded the Year of Faith this past weekend on the Feast of Christ the King by recalling the passage in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus – hanging on the cross – addresses the Good Thief with words of forgiveness and not condemnation. Pope Francis reminds listeners that: “whenever anyone finds the courage to ask forgiveness, the Lord does not let such a petition go unheard.” A man of peace, it should be remembered that back in early September, in the wake of the atrocity of the Syrian government’s almost certain use of chemical weapons against its own people – when a military intervention by the United States in the civil war there was almost certain – it was Pope Francis who – while denouncing Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons – was almost alone among the world’s leaders who drew attention to the question of whether military intervention would have a plausible chance of improving the lives of those in peril, as well as advancing the security of those who would “go to war in the name of peace”. In response to the proposed military intervention, it was Francis who called the world to a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria and the Middle East. While it is scientifically difficult to measure the efficacy of prayer, we should recall that it was only AFTER that day of prayer and fasting – as well as AFTER Secretary of State John Kerry’s off the cuff remark that a U.S. military response could be avoided if Syria agreed to open its chemical weapons program to international to oversight and eventful destruction – that a diplomatic solution to the crisis was considered and ultimately pursued. If as they say, the “devil is in the details” in this case – on this particular occasion – it seems that the Holy Spirit was in the gaff!
One a politician, the other a pastor: yet both men of justice, of forgiveness of peace. There is much in our world that we have to be grateful for, and certainly such witness to our Gospel values should be included among those things. During his lifetime, Saint Francis of Assisi was known for greeting all he encountered with the expression “Pace e Bene!” or – in English – “Peace and all Good!”. Now I am not one to try to “one-up” great Saints, but on this one occasion if you will allow me permission, I’d like offer up “Pace e Bene e Grazie” – peace and good and thanks – for these two great men, and wish you and yours every blessing for a wonderful Thanksgiving!