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Pope Francis as diplomat: the principles that have guided his 10-year-old pontificate

Pope Francis meets with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana, Cuba. on Feb. 12, 2016. / Vatican Media.

Vatican City, Mar 12, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).

In his public diplomatic efforts in the war in Ukraine, Pope Francis has repeatedly said that he is ready to go to Kyiv, but only if that trip can be combined with a trip to Moscow.

This is the latest demonstration of the pope’s strong preference in diplomatic matters: He does not want to take sides but rather engage in conversation with all the interlocutors, even if this willingness to dialogue at all costs risks being misinterpreted.

Throughout the 10 years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has abandoned the traditional diplomatic prudence of the Holy See, opting instead for a pragmatic approach of direct dialogue. The foundation of this approach can be seen in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which is in some ways the ideological basis of the pontificate. As he calls for Christian evangelizers to engage in “respectful and compassionate listening,” his approach to diplomacy seeks to open processes rather than to look for definitive solutions.

All of the diplomatic actions of his pontificate follow this principle. This includes his first diplomatic success, namely the role the Holy See played in restoring relations between the Holy See and Cuba in 2014. It is also seen in the controversial agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, signed in 2018 and twice renewed. And it applies to the “rules of engagement” of the first meeting of a pope with a patriarch of Moscow, which took place in Cuba in 2016, and, precisely, to the question of possible mediation to achieve peace in the war in Ukraine.

The diplomacy of pontifical journeys

To date, Pope Francis has made 40 international trips. The destination of his next papal journey is always a subject of speculation and curiosity and says much about his priorities for papal diplomacy.

This year is a good example. He will be in Budapest from April 28-30 and will almost certainly be in Lisbon for World Youth Day in August. However, there is already talk that the pope will go to Marseilles to participate in the meeting of the bishops of the Mediterranean, and then from there travel directly to Mongolia, where no pope has ever gone.

Thus packaged, the trip would show two cardinal criteria of Pope Francis in choosing the countries to visit. The first: Don’t go to countries that are already leaders on the world stage. To go to Marseilles, without passing through Paris, the capital of France, would highlight that the passage through French territory will only be for one event. This is what happened in 2014 when Pope Francis restricted his visit to France to Strasbourg, where he visited the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.

The second criterion: to give preference to small nations, going where God is needed.

Mongolia is a nation with a tiny Catholic flock that has never been visited by a pope. So it is no coincidence that Pope Francis wanted to name Giorgio Marengo, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, a cardinal to signal a particular preference for that country, which, among other things, is located on the border with China.

Furthermore, Pope Francis has always wanted to emphasize dialogue in his travel. In Europe, as a rule, he visits locations where Catholics are a minority: Bulgaria, Romania, and North Macedonia in 2019; the Baltic countries in 2018 (where only Lithuania is majority Catholic); Greece and Cyprus in 2021; Sweden in 2016; Albania in 2014; and the visit to the meeting of the World Council of Churches in 2018.

Within Europe or at the borders of Europe, the pope traveled to the Holy Land, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. When his destination was a powerful or majority Catholic country, it was because a big event was taking place there. He went to Krakow, Poland, for the 2016 World Youth Day, the United States for Philadelphia’s World Meeting of Families in 2015, and to Ireland for the 2018 World Meeting of Families.

In some cases, his choice of destination was made precisely to provide for the opening of processes. The visit to Bulgaria, for example, was also the occasion for a meeting with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which does not even participate in the Mixed Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission.

The mediation of the Holy See

Cuba has been the site of two of the most important successes of the pontificate: the meeting with Patriarch Kirill and the reopening of diplomatic relations, which the Holy See has facilitated.

The Holy See’s success followed 75 years of uninterrupted diplomatic relations with the island. Nothing in the Church happens suddenly; everything is the fruit of long work.

Thus, from the travels, one comes to understand diplomatic work.

Cuba represents a new impetus for pontifical mediations, as seen in Venezuela at the direct request of the parties involved, and also in Nicaragua, where the diplomatic line now seems to be one of remaining a step behind. The decision not to appoint a new nuncio after the sudden expulsion of Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag from Managua was a move to avoid having to dialogue with the government of Managua for the approval of a diplomat while maintaining a presence in the country.

In the Vatican’s problematic relations with China, the goal has been to keep the lines of communication open. Pope Francis wanted an agreement to appoint bishops, which was signed in 2018 and renewed twice for two years. So far, only six bishops have been appointed after the deal, while Beijing seems to want to push religions (and not just Catholicism) more and more into so-called “sinicization.”

The object, however, is to have an agreement, even if imperfect, to have a basis on which to negotiate.

Wars in the world

The criterion of dialogue at any cost was the basis of the pope’s diplomatic efforts over the war in Ukraine. The Holy See has been following the situation in Kyiv since the Maidan protests of 2014. Pope Francis has launched a special collection, the Pope for Ukraine. At the same time, in 2019, he wanted an interdicasterial meeting in the Vatican with the synod and the bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

However, Pope Francis wanted to keep the channels open with Moscow, so much so that his first instinct at the outbreak of war was to go personally to the embassy of the Russian Federation to try to speak with President Vladimir Putin.

Pope Francis has repeatedly underlined that many territories are engaged in what he calls “a piecemeal world war.” His visit to Iraq in 2021; his frequent mention of Yemen; and Syria, whose nuncio was named a cardinal by the pope, are examples of his efforts in these troubled regions.

The diplomacy of prayer

Syria is an example of Pope Francis’ “diplomacy of prayer” because it was due to the situation in Syria that Pope Francis, in September 2013, proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer for Syria and the Middle East. And a day of prayer for peace, declared in the Vatican Gardens in June 2014, was used as a diplomatic lock-pick to create a meeting point. The prayer retreat with the South Sudan leaders in 2019 was part of this effort.

In Pope Francis’ vision, religions must meet to create the common good. Interreligious dialogue is part of diplomacy. The restored relations with the al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the major centers of Sunni Islam, can be read in this light.

During his trip to Egypt in 2017, the pope participated in the International Peace Conference organized by the same institution. He reiterated that there could be no violence in the name of God.

A desire for interreligious dialogue marked the decision to travel to the United Arab Emirates as well as that of going to Morocco in 2019. In Abu Dhabi, the pope signed with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyib a declaration on human fraternity that set guidelines for diplomacy, so much so that the pope has given a copy to all the heads of state who have visited him.

The guidelines were put into practice during Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq, which culminated in the meeting with the Grand Ayatollah al Sistani and with the other religions at the Plain of Ur (but without Jewish representatives, which perhaps seemed like excessive diplomatic prudence). It was also evident in Pope Francis’ last trip to the Gulf, in Bahrain, in 2022.

The theme of fraternity then resulted in an encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, developed during the pandemic and now part of the diplomatic instruments of the Holy See and presented on April 15, 2021, at a high-level event at the United Nations.

The duty to protect

In short, you must, first of all, prove that you are friends for diplomacy to proceed effectively. This was the line dictated by Cardinal Pietro Parolin in September 2014 when, as secretary of state, he participated in the United Nations General Assembly. The key of his speeches was the “duty to protect.”

The Holy See, in recent years, has applied this duty to protect the environment (just think of the encyclical Laudato Si and the commitment to a climate agreement), to persecuted minorities (thanks to the diplomatic commitment of the Holy See for the first time in the European institutions, talks began about the persecution of Christians), to people who are victims of human trafficking (perhaps the central theme of Pope Francis’ diplomatic activity), to migrants (Pope Francis has allocated an entire office of the Roman Curia, under its direct dependence, on the migrant emergency).

The entire diplomatic effort of the Holy See in 2018 was then dedicated to the issue of migrants, working on the global agreement on migration discussed in Marrakech on Dec. 10-11, 2018.

The diplomatic network

In recent years, the diplomatic network of the Holy See has grown. Three nations joined the diplomatic network of the Holy See during Francis’ pontificate. In 2016, Mauritania established full diplomatic relations. In 2017, Myanmar forged ties with the Holy See, thus paving the way for the pope’s next trip to the country. And, in February, the Holy See and Oman entered diplomatic relations.

The Holy See now has diplomatic relations with 184 nations around the world. And Vietnam, where the Holy See currently has a nonresident representative, is expected to be soon added to these nations.

The next challenges

In addition, throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has often warned against ideological colonization and has defended indigenous cultures in various speeches, especially in his travels to Latin America and his most recent trip to Canada.

And it can already be foreseen that the pope’s forthcoming diplomatic speeches may broach new topics, such as artificial intelligence, which is increasingly becoming the focus of activities.

Pope Francis: Gender ideology is ‘one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations’ today

Pope Francis speaks at the general audience in Vatican City's Paul VI Hall on Feb. 22, 2023. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Mar 11, 2023 / 05:20 am (CNA).

Pope Francis has said that gender ideology is “one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations” today.

In an interview with journalist Elisabetta Piqué for the Argentine daily newspaper La Nación, Pope Francis explained the reasoning behind his strong statement.

“Gender ideology, today, is one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations,” Francis said in the interview published on the evening of March 10.

“Why is it dangerous? Because it blurs differences and the value of men and women,” he added.

“All humanity is the tension of differences. It is to grow through the tension of differences. The question of gender is diluting the differences and making the world the same, all dull, all alike, and that is contrary to the human vocation.”

Pope Francis has frequently used the term “ideological colonization” throughout the 10 years of his pontificate, particularly to describe instances when aid money for developing countries has been tied to contraceptives, abortion, sterilization, and gender ideologies.

In a conversation with Polish bishops in 2016, Pope Francis said: “Today children — children — are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex. Why are they teaching this? Because the books are provided by the people and institutions that give you money. These forms of ideological colonization are also supported by influential countries. And this is terrible!”

The pope told Piqué that he was not currently writing a new encyclical and denied that he had been asked to write a document on the subject of gender.

While he is not writing something on gender ideology, the pope said that he talks about the subject “because some people are a bit naive and believe that it is the way to progress.”

He said that they “do not distinguish what is respect for sexual diversity or diverse sexual preferences from what is already an anthropology of gender, which is extremely dangerous because it eliminates differences, and that erases humanity, the richness of humanity, both personal, cultural, and social, the diversities and the tensions between differences.”

The pope noted that he always distinguishes “between what pastoral care is for people who have a different sexual orientation and what gender ideology is.”

“They are two different things,” he added.

When Piqué asked Pope Francis if he knew that in Argentina people are asked to indicate on official forms if they are male, female, or non-binary sex, the pope said that it reminded him of the “futuristic” novel, "Lord of the World," written by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson in 1907.

He said that the book presents the idea of “a future in which differences are disappearing and everything is the same, everything is uniform, a single leader of the whole world.”

In the interview with La Nación — the third papal interview published on March 10 — Pope Francis also reflected on the 10 years of his pontificate, his concern for the war in Ukraine, and why he has not traveled to his native Argentina.

Days ahead of the 10th anniversary of his pontificate on March 13, the pope said that he was especially happy about the legacy of his “pastoral line of forgiveness and understanding of the people, to make room in the Church for everyone.”

Asked to identify any mistakes he might have made in the past 10 years, the pope regretted times when he had lost his patience.

“More than once. It did not appear in the newspapers, but more than once,” he added with a laugh.

‘I regret to inform you’: Pope Francis rebuffs Cardinal Becciu in letters read during ongoing finance trial

Italian Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu (right) waits prior to the start of a consistory during which 20 new cardinals are to be created by the Pope, on Aug. 27, 2022 at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. ( / Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

Rome Newsroom, Mar 10, 2023 / 14:15 pm (CNA).

Prior to the start of his trial on financial malfeasance charges, Cardinal Angelo Becciu tried to get Pope Francis to confirm that he had authorized the financial transactions that led to Becciu’s prosecution.

The pope refused.

“I regret to inform you that I cannot comply with your request,” the pope wrote back.

The correspondence between the two, which took place in July 2021, was read and displayed in a Vatican court March 9 — an unexpected turn of events coming during the 50th hearing of the trial.

Promoter of Justice Alessandro Diddi obtained the three letters directly from the “sovereign authority,” that is, Pope Francis himself.

In one letter, dated July 20, 2021, Becciu asked the pope to confirm that he had given the go-ahead for an investment by the Secretariat of State in a luxury property in London in 2013. Not only that, Becciu also asked the pope to acknowledge that he had personally approved the hiring of an intermediary, Cecilia Marogna, to help secure the release of Sister Cecilia Narvaez, the Colombian nun kidnapped in Mali in 2017 and freed in 2021.

In a style that seems more legalistic than Pope Francis’ usual writing, the pope wrote back on July 21 to say that Becciu’s letter surprised him. Instead of granting the confirmation that Becciu sought, the pope emphasized that the proposal for the purchase of the property in London “immediately seemed strange to me.” For that reason, he wrote, “I suggested that a prior consultation be carried out with the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and with Father Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, prefect of the SPE, for the insights of their respective competences.”

The phone call and new letter

On July 24, Cardinal Becciu telephoned Pope Francis and secretly recorded their conversation. In the phone call, Becciu complained that the pope’s letter of July 21 was like a verdict issued against him. He asked for it to be annulled, telling the pope that the tone of his letter was “entirely juridical” rather than that of a spiritual father.

Becciu asked the pope if he remembered that he gave him “the authorization to free the nun” and then told the pope that it would be enough for him if the pope said he authorized him to carry out particular operations. The pope responded by asking to send in writing “explanations and what he would like me to write.”

Becciu wrote to the pope again on July 24. In that letter, he thanked the pope for the phone call and said he he heard Francis “like a true father willing to listen to the pain of a son.”

Enclosed with the letter were two declarations that he asked the pope to sign, one regarding the London property deal and the other concerning the nun’s release.

Concerning the London property, Becciu appealed to the pope to affirm that he had considered “the proposal interesting.”

On July 26, Pope Francis responded again. He wrote that he had not clarified his “negative position” on the declarations that the cardinal wanted him to sign.

“Evidently and surprisingly, you misunderstood me,” Francis wrote.

“I regret to inform you,” he added, “that I cannot comply with your request to formally declare ‘nothing’ and therefore to ‘disregard’ the letter I had written to you.”

Pope Francis says imprisonment of Nicaraguan bishop reminds him of Hitler’s dictatorship

Pope Francis prays in St. Peter's Square on March 8, 2023. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Mar 10, 2023 / 08:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis called Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega “unstable” and likened Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to Nazi Germany in an interview published Friday.

Speaking about Nicaragua’s Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison by Ortega’s dictatorship last month, Pope Francis said: “It is something out of line with reality; it is as if we were bringing back the communist dictatorship of 1917 or the Hitler dictatorship of 1935.”

“They are a type of vulgar dictatorships,” he added, also using the Argentine word “guarangas,” meaning “rude.”

Pope Francis said: “With much respect, I have no choice but to think that the person who leads [Daniel Ortega] is unstable,” according to a transcript published on March 10 by the Spanish-language news outlet Infobae.

“Here we have a bishop in prison, a very serious man, very capable. He wanted to give witness and did not accept exile,” he said, speaking of Álvarez, whose imprisonment deeply grieved the pope.

The pope’s comment echoes those made recently by the chair of the U.N.’s Human Rights Group on Nicaragua, Jan Michael Simon.

“The use of the justice system against political opponents, as in Nicaragua, is exactly what the Nazi regime did,” Simon said.

‘Russian empire’ and the Ukraine war

Two news outlets published interviews with Pope Francis on March 10, days before the 10th anniversary of his pontificate.

In an interview with the Swiss public broadcaster RSI, Pope Francis spoke about what he would say if he had a chance to meet again with Russian President Vladamir Putin one year after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I would speak to him as clearly as I speak in public. He is an educated man,” the pope said.

“The second day of the war I was at the Russian embassy to the Holy See to say that I was willing to go to Moscow as long as Putin would leave me a window to negotiate. Lavrov wrote to me saying thank you but it’s not the time. Putin knows I’m available.”

“But there are imperial interests there, not only of the Russian empire, but of the empires elsewhere. It is typical of the empire to put nations in second place,” Pope Francis said.

Benedict’s funeral

When asked why the funeral for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was sober, Pope Francis revealed that the funeral for the pope emeritus was challenging for masters of the apostolic ceremonies.

“The masters of ceremonies ‘broke their heads’ carrying out the funeral of a non-reigning pope. It was difficult to make a distinction,” he said.

“Now I have told them to study the ceremony for the funerals of future popes, of all popes. They are studying and also simplifying things a bit, removing the things that, liturgically, are not correct.”

Possibility of Pope Francis’ retirement

As he approaches the 10th anniversary of his pontificate, Pope Francis has said that he is not currently contemplating his retirement but discussed the circumstances that could potentially lead him to resign.

He said: “A tiredness that does not make you see things clearly. A lack of clarity, of knowing how to evaluate situations. A physical problem, too, perhaps,” could lead to his retirement.

“I always ask about this and listen to advice. ‘How are things going? Do you think I should…’ I ask those who know me and even some intelligent cardinals. And they tell me the truth: carry on, it is fine. But please: give me a shout in time,” he added.

RSI has only published an abridged transcript of its interview with the pope. The full interview will be published on the evening of March 12.

Pope Francis discusses revising priestly celibacy in new interview

Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square on March 8, 2023. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Mar 10, 2023 / 05:45 am (CNA).

In a new interview, Pope Francis has discussed the possibility of revising the Western discipline of priestly celibacy.

“There is no contradiction for a priest to marry. Celibacy in the Western Church is a temporary prescription: I do not know if it is settled in one way or another, but it is temporary in this sense,” Pope Francis said in an interview published on March 10.

“It is not eternal like priestly ordination, which is forever, whether you like it or not. Whether you leave or not is another matter, but it is forever. On the other hand, celibacy is a discipline.”

When asked by the Argentine journalist Daniel Hadad if celibacy “could be reviewed,” Pope Francis responded: “Yes, yes. In fact, everyone in the Eastern Church is married. Or those who want to. There they make a choice. Before ordination there is the choice to marry or to be celibate,” according to a transcript provided by Infobae.

In response to the interviewer’s inquiry if the pope thought that making celibacy optional would lead more people to join the priesthood, Pope Francis said: “I do not think so,” noting that there are already married priests in the Catholic Church in the Eastern rites.

The pope added that earlier that day he had met with an Eastern Catholic priest who works in the Roman Curia who has a wife and a son.

Pope Francis has spoken about the value of priestly celibacy before. In January 2019 he said: “Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift to the Church. I would say that I do not agree with allowing optional celibacy, no."

The pope added at the time that he thinks there is room to consider some exceptions for married clergy in the Latin rite "when there is a pastoral necessity" in remote locations due to a lack of priests, such as in the Pacific islands.

The nearly one-hour-long interview published Friday with Infobae, a Miami-based Spanish-language online news outlet, also touched on Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship in Nicaragua, drug trafficking in Latin America, the war in Ukraine, and marriage annulments. 

When speaking of annulments, Pope Francis advised to look to what his predecessor Benedict XVI had said on the subject and said that “a large part of church marriages are invalid for lack of faith.”

“And think about it: Sometimes [one] goes to a wedding and it seems more like it's a social reception and not a sacrament,” Pope Francis said.

“When young people say ‘forever,’ who knows what they mean [by] ‘forever.’”

He added: “A very wise lady once told me: ‘You priests are very smart. To be ordained priests you have to spend six, seven years in the seminary. On the other hand, to get married, which is for a lifetime — because a priest can leave, on the other hand, for us it is for a lifetime— they give us four meetings.’”

St. Peter’s Basilica to hold monthly eucharistic adoration on portico

St. Peter's Basilica. / feliks/Shutterstock.

Vatican City, Mar 9, 2023 / 11:00 am (CNA).

St. Peter’s Basilica will now host an hour of eucharistic adoration on its front portico once a month.

Beginning March 14, adoration will take place every second Tuesday from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the parvise in front of the Vatican basilica leading to St. Peter’s Square.

The Holy Hour, according to a press release, is part of the pastoral initiatives of the basilica.

The March 14 adoration will be led by Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, OFM Conv, who is the archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica. The prayer will be offered for Pope Francis in light of his 10th anniversary as pope.

St. Peter’s Basilica is typically open every day from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the winter or 7 p.m. in the summer.

The Eucharist is also exposed in St. Peter’s Basilica for adoration in the Chapel of the Most Blessed Sacrament from approximately 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

A monthly eucharistic Holy Hour in front of St. Peter’s Basilica is added to other initiatives started by Cardinal Gambetti after he was appointed archpriest in February 2021.

In October 2022, the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica was illuminated with a 3D projection mapping of art from the Vatican Museums. The eight-minute light show, called “Follow Me: The Life of St. Peter,” played every night for two weeks.

Last year the Vatican also held the Stations of the Cross in the basilica every Friday during Lent. The prayer was accompanied by paintings of the Passion of Christ by the Italian artist Gaetano Previati (1852–1920).

During his tenure, Gambetti also enacted a ban on the celebration of private Masses at the altars in the upper part of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Though early morning Masses by groups “with particular and legitimate needs” may be allowed, in general, private Masses can now only be celebrated in the chapels in the Vatican crypt. Visitors to the basilica may also participate in regularly scheduled Italian-language Masses in the basilica and priests may concelebrate.

The change was criticized by Cardinals Joseph Zen, Robert Sarah, Raymond Burke, Gerhard Müller, and Walter Brandmüller.

Pope Francis also led eucharistic adoration and gave an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing on the portico of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 27, 2020, to pray for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The televised prayer took place before an empty square since Italy’s lockdown prevented attendance.

Pope Francis underlines ‘universal value’ of Jerusalem in speech to Palestinians

Dome of the Rock with Christian church in foreground in Jerusalem. / Shutterstock

Rome Newsroom, Mar 9, 2023 / 10:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis underlined the “universal value” of Jerusalem in a meeting with members of a Vatican-Palestinian interreligious dialogue group on Thursday.

“Jesus wept over Jerusalem,” the pope said in the Apostolic Palace on March 9. “We should not pass over these words in haste. These tears of Jesus should be contemplated in silence.”

“How many men and women, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have wept and in our day continue to weep for Jerusalem. At times, we too are moved to tears when we think of the Holy City, for she is like a mother whose heart cannot be at peace due to the sufferings of her children,” he continued.

The papal audience was held with representatives of the Joint Working Group for Dialogue between the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue and the Palestinian Commission for Interreligious Dialogue.

Jerusalem, which is situated on a plateau between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea in Israel, is one of the world’s oldest cities. It is a source of division between Israelis and Palestinians, who both claim the city as their capital.

Pope Francis on March 9, 2023, meets with members of the Joint Working Group for Dialogue between the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue and the Palestinian Commission for Interreligious Dialogue. Vatican Media
Pope Francis on March 9, 2023, meets with members of the Joint Working Group for Dialogue between the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue and the Palestinian Commission for Interreligious Dialogue. Vatican Media

In his March 9 speech, Pope Francis said that Jerusalem “has universal value, as seen from its very name, which means ‘City of Peace.’”

“Here I think of the moment in Jesus’ life, when, just a few days before his passion, he came to the Holy City,” he said, quoting Luke 19:41-42: “As he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!’” 

“This Gospel passage reminds us of the value of compassion. God’s compassion for Jerusalem must become our own, more powerful than any ideology or political alignment,” he underlined. “Even greater must be our love for the Holy City, as for a mother who deserves respect and reverence on the part of all.”

The theme of the meeting of the Joint Working Group for Dialogue was the spiritual significance of Jerusalem for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Pope Francis noted that Jerusalem was the setting of many events in Jesus’ life, as recounted in the Gospels.

“As an infant, he was presented in the Temple, and in the company of his parents he traveled to Jerusalem each year for the feast of Passover,” he said. “In the Holy City Jesus taught and performed many of his miracles. There, most importantly, he completed his mission through his passion, death, and resurrection, the paschal mystery at the heart of the Christian faith.”

Jerusalem, the pope added, is also where “the Church was born, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples gathered in prayer with the Virgin Mary and sent them forth to proclaim to all peoples the message of salvation.”

The Vatican’s Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue also signed this week a memorandum of understanding to strengthen interreligious and intercultural dialogue between the Vatican and the Muslim Council of Elders.

The agreement, which calls for annual meetings and a permanent joint committee for Islamic-Christian dialogue, was signed by Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot and Muslim Council of Elders Secretary-General Judge Mohamed Abdelsalam.

‘The figure of a father’: Cardinal Ouellet on 10 years with Pope Francis

Pope Francis arrives with Cardinal Marc Ouellet (R) of Canada for the opening of three-day Symposium on priesthood in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Feb. 17, 2022. / Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)

Vatican City, Mar 9, 2023 / 09:00 am (CNA).

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who has led the Vatican’s office that advises the pope on the appointment of bishops for over a dozen years, has had an up-close look at Pope Francis’ first 10 years as pope.

The 78-year-old cardinal spoke to CNA about the pope’s legacy, the Latin American influence on his pastoral style, and his approach to choosing bishops ahead of the March 13 anniversary of Francis’ papacy.

“The world needs a spiritual leader, a father in some way. And he has the figure of a father: close to the people, merciful, compassionate,” Ouellet said in a sit-down interview at the Dicastery for Bishops on Feb. 23.

On March 13, 2013, the second day of the conclave, the cardinal electors chose Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be the 266th pope of the Catholic Church and the bishop of Rome.

“After a great doctor of the Church like Benedict and a great evangelizer — John Paul II — you needed a man that is close to the people and helps people to walk the way of following Christ, to be accompanied, and to be understood with a merciful heart. That’s what the Church needed at the time,” Ouellet said.

One of the pope’s responsibilities is choosing the men who will lead the world’s dioceses as bishops.

Ouellet, who is from Québec, Canada, has met weekly with Pope Francis throughout his pontificate to help with this process.

“The style of the pope has had an impact on the way we choose bishops,” the cardinal affirmed.

According to Ouellet, Pope Francis, 86, looks for men “who are witnesses of the Risen One, and not just people that would be good administrators.”

Francis wants bishops, he said, who are “full of life, able to evangelize, and also men of communion — not only of discipline, but of communion — able to listen to the people, to their priests, to their confreres in the episcopal conference.”

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who has led the Vatican’s office for choosing bishops for over a dozen years, talks with Hannah Brockhaus, CNA Rome correspondent, and EWTN Rome Bureau Chief Andreas Thonhauser at the Dicastery of Bishops in Vatican City on Feb. 23, 2023. Alan Koppschall/EWTN
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who has led the Vatican’s office for choosing bishops for over a dozen years, talks with Hannah Brockhaus, CNA Rome correspondent, and EWTN Rome Bureau Chief Andreas Thonhauser at the Dicastery of Bishops in Vatican City on Feb. 23, 2023. Alan Koppschall/EWTN

The Dicastery for Bishops, formerly called the Congregation for Bishops, has the task of collecting information on potential candidates for the episcopacy around the world.

Ouellet has led that office as prefect since June 2010. He will conclude his term in April, when Bishop Robert Francis Prevost, 67, will take up the role after his appointment at the end of January.

The Quebecois cardinal said his dicastery mostly has been choosing “pastoral bishops,” but depending on the needs of the local Church, they also look for men with “good canonical preparation, with a good theology.”

“It is a discernment that is done very precisely, after the study of the place,” Ouellet said.

It is the cardinal’s responsibility to bring the “terna,” a report of three candidates for archbishop, bishop, or auxiliary bishop of a diocese, to the pope for selection.

Ouellet will present the opinions of the dicastery to Pope Francis, who makes the final selection.

“Every week, an hour with him, we’ve been addressing so many questions,” the cardinal said. “I’ve seen him react as a man of God that is listening to the Spirit, having his signs to discern exactly the motion of the Spirit.”

Another important quality Ouellet has noticed in Pope Francis is his ability “to withdraw when he thinks ‘I went too far. I had a sort of impulsive move.’”

“He is able to correct himself. I’ve had some examples I will not give you,” the cardinal said with a chuckle. “But [he is] really a man of God, a man that follows the Spirit. That’s my experience of him.”

Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet atends the pope's Mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, 2022, at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images
Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet atends the pope's Mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, 2022, at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images

According to Ouellet, Pope Francis’ pastoral style has also had an impact on his papacy in other ways — including his communication style.

“He has been giving interviews to journalists — you had never seen that before ... and in a very spontaneous way,” he said. “He has been doing interviews for books, and looking for all the occasions to speak to the people, and so to be present among the people. That’s his pastoral style.”

The cardinal also pointed to Pope Francis’ initiatives for interreligious dialogue, including the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which he signed with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, in Abu Dhabi in 2019.

The Abu Dhabi declaration “is so important for the peace in the world,” Ouellet said. “It is not easy to deal with the Muslim, the Islamic community. It is difficult, and there is a real need for encounter, for better understanding of dialogue, in a word. He has been [making] many efforts in that direction.”

Cardinal Ouellet has also been president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America since 2010.

He said South America is the continent “where the divide between rich and poor is greatest.”

“The pope has come to the See of Peter with the poor in his heart. And he has put the poor at the center of the Church,” he explained.

“I think this is the main contribution of Pope Francis from Latin America, this sensitivity to the poor,” Ouellet explained. “It is a lesson for the whole world: If you put the [poor at the center] you put everybody on mission, because mission begins with love, with charity, otherwise, your word has no impact, if it is not accompanied by your gesture. And that’s a characteristic of Pope Francis.”

Cardinal Ouellet also noted the Catholic Church’s clerical culture and emphasis on the ordained ministry. He believes the Church needs to increase awareness of the priesthood of the baptized, which every Catholic belongs to.

“This is, for me, a contribution that has to be added to the process of synodality,” he underlined.

“I think in the legacy of Pope Francis, synodality will probably remain as the most important of his contributions.”

Vatican takes climate activists to trial for damage to base of famous statue in Vatican Museums

Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museums. / Shutterstock

Rome Newsroom, Mar 9, 2023 / 08:11 am (CNA).

The Vatican held a hearing Thursday to try three climate activists for criminal damage to a famous statue in the Vatican Museums.

Guido Viero, 61, and Ester Goffi, 26, were ordered to appear before the Vatican City State’s tribunal on March 9.

Viero and Goffi superglued their hands to the marble base holding Laocoön and His Sons, an ancient marble sculpture on display in the Vatican Museums, on the morning of Aug. 18, 2022. 

They are accused of damaging the base of the statue through the use of “particularly tough and corrosive synthetic adhesive.”

Laura, who video-recorded the demonstration in the Vatican Museums and whose last name is not public, has also been charged by the Vatican.

The three are part of Ultima Generazione (“Last Generation”), an Italian group that encourages nonviolent civil disobedience to “raise the alarm on the climate emergency.”

Charges of resisting a public official were dropped.

According to Ultima Generazione, Viero and Goffi face up to three years in prison and fines of up to 3,099 euros ($3,272).

The climate activism group claims that after Viero and Goffi glued themselves to the statue base, that area of the Vatican Museums was cleared of museum guests by staff. It also said the cell phones of those recording the action were confiscated and video or photo footage of the stunt was deleted before the phones were returned to their owners.

Pope Francis meets with two Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram

Janada Marcus with Pope Francis at the general audience on March 8, 2023. / Credit: Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Mar 8, 2023 / 11:45 am (CNA).

Pope Francis met Wednesday with two young Nigerian girls who suffered horrendous violence at the hands of the Boko Haram terrorist group.

Sixteen-year-old Maryamu Joseph, who escaped from the Boko Haram in July after being held against her will for nine years, greeted the pope with Janada Marcus, also a victim of Boko Haram kidnapping, at the end of his general audience on March 8.

Both girls saw members of their families murdered by the Boko Haram. Marcus’ father was beheaded by a machete in front of her in 2018. Joseph saw her brother killed and cut into pieces in 2019.

“Right before my eyes, they took one of my siblings and killed him. They cut off his head, then his hands, legs, and stomach,” she said in a report published by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

The pontifical charity arranged for the girls to meet the pope on International Women’s Day. Pope Francis recently wrote a book preface in which he condemned violence against women.

“We must find the cure to heal this plague and not leave women alone,” the pope said.

After escaping the Boko Haram, Joseph and Marcus both received treatment at the Trauma Center of Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria, a center built with the assistance of ACN.

Their stories are detailed in the report “Nigeria: A Bleeding Wound,” which shares firsthand testimonies of Catholics who have survived torture, kidnappings, and massacres at the hands of Nigerian terrorists.

Maryamu Joseph with Pope Francis at the general audience on March 8, 2023. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA
Maryamu Joseph with Pope Francis at the general audience on March 8, 2023. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

“Nine years of living in bondage! Nine years of torture! Nine years of agony! We suffered so much at the hands of these heartless, ruthless people. For nine years we saw the shedding of the innocent blood of my fellow Christians, killed by people who do not value life. They murdered without remorse, like it’s a normal thing to do,” Joseph said of her time in captivity.

At the age of 7, she was abducted along with 21 others when the Boko Haram attacked her village.

“They put the Christians in cages, like animals. The first thing they did was forcefully convert us to Islam. They changed my name to Aisha, a Muslim name, and warned us not to pray as Christians or we would be killed,” Joseph said.

Marcus, 22, was forced to flee Boko Haram with her family twice before the terrorists attacked them again in the city of Maiduguri. In this attack, Marcus’ father was told to either rape her or be killed.

“With a machete pointed at my father’s forehead, he looked at my mother and at me, but I avoided eye contact because I was ashamed to look him in the face, ashamed of what the men had suggested — it was an abomination!” Marcus told ACN. “My father put his head down in submission to be killed and answered: ‘I cannot sleep with my own flesh and blood, my own daughter, I would rather die than commit this abomination.’”

Her father was beheaded, and Marcus continued to suffer at the hands of the Islamic terrorists.

“They took me to the bush and tortured me severely, emotionally, physically, and mentally for six days. I suffered a lot of terrible and wicked experiences — beyond explanation — that made those six days seem like six years,” Marcus said.

Violent persecution in Nigeria has become a growing concern in recent years, according to many religious freedom organizations, including ACN.

Both priests and lay faithful are regularly targeted by Islamic terror groups such as Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and militant Fulani.

In the face of this persecution, Nigeria has the highest Mass attendance of any country in the world. According to recent data compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 94% of Catholics in Nigeria attend Mass at least weekly.

Marcus shared that the six months that she spent at the trauma center were months of “healing, prayers, and counseling.”

“After my healing process, I enrolled in college. I am very happy, and I will give it my all to finish my degree and become someone great in society. … I acquired new skills that have made me so proud of myself,” she said.

“Emotionally, I have learned to let go of my past; I have learned the art of healing by letting go of my pain. My faith has strengthened.”

“It’s hard to forgive and forget, and with all that I have gone through at the hands of Boko Haram I can’t even believe that I am the one saying this, but I have forgiven them in my heart, and I pray for the redemption of their souls,” Marcus said.