What does the pope do?
When the question of what the pope does was posed to me by a close friend and classmate, I was disappointed by my inability to provide a convincing or accurate response.
The pope, the leader of the Catholic Church and the apostolic successor to Saint Peter, is the primary living role model for believers. Not knowing how His Holiness spends
his time is no minor confession; it is a staggering admission of ignorance.
It was not long before my disappointment moved me to search for an answer. The first thing I did was reform the question: “What has the pope done recently?”
Pope Francis, who ordinarily resides at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City, traveled to Chile from Jan. 15-18. There he met with victims of sexual abuse and celebrated Mass in Temuco, the capital of Chile’s Araucania region and the ancestral home of the
indigenous Mapuche people.
“One of the great virtues of Pope Francis is his compassion for the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten,” Mark Goodwin, associate professor of theology, explained.
“His trip to Chile was intended to help and heal those who have been wounded by the recent crisis there in the church. Whether or not this was accomplished, the Pope was motivated by a deeply pastoral desire to serve those who have suffered, a desire that has moved him to minister to many throughout his pontificate.”
The pope’s visit to Chile did not avert controversy. Before and after Pope Francis’ ar-
rival, vandals set off firebombs in churches, burning some to the ground. Mapuche radicals, who have demanded repossession of their ancestral lands and the release of political prisoners, are the suspected perpetrators.
Pope Francis was uncompromising in his condemnation of the violence during his homily in Temuco. “Violence begets violence, destruction increases fragmentation and separation. Violence eventually makes a most just cause into a lie,” he said.
There is a certain kind of bravery required to venture into hostile territory and
speak critically about the status of local affairs.
Aristotle ends “De Anima” by asserting the necessity of the senses to a soul’s well-being. He implicitly appeals to humanism, saying that an animal has “hearing that it may have communication made to it, and a tongue that it may communicate with its fellows.”
Our lives are made better by our ability to speak to one another. When the pope speaks,
no matter the context, he is indulging in humanity’s single greatest gift. But many would
rather not listen.
The history of the church in Latin America complicates
Mark Petersen, assistant professor of history focusing on the United States and Latin America, characterized how Latin Americans view the church:
“There’s this tension in their image of the church. On the one hand, its part of
the cultural heritage of indigenous communities now. In other parts of Latin America, the church is seen as a symbol of colonialism,” Petersen said. “This tension and conflict has
shaped Latin America since the arrival of the Europeans.”
Considering this tension, the pope’s decision to travel across the world and preach a message of nonviolence is nothing short of extraordinary.
In Santiago, Chile’s capital, the pope also offered an apology for victims of childhood sexual abuse inflicted by priests. The recent decline of Catholicism in parts of Latin America has been linked to these sex abuse scandals.
For some, the pope’s apology was not enough. Ariel Dorfman, in the New York Review of Books, wrote, “There were certain words that Chileans were hoping that Pope Francis would say … Above all, my compatriots wanted the pope to publicly chide Bishop Juan Barros, …
who had witnessed his mentor’s pedophilia.”
This was not an unusual opinion. News articles appearing in The Washington Post, The New York Times and other nationally syndicated papers reported the pope’s trip using a similarly critical lens.
These opinions should concede the same modesty I admitted when I began this task: they do not know what the pope does. The pontiff is a bridge-builder. He travels the world on an ecumenical mission to unite all Christians under one holy and apostolic church. In this sense, he is, as Nietzsche says, “what is great in a man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
But when he speaks ex officio, the pope is not just a man. His words carry with them the dignity Christ bestowed on Saint Peter, a tradition founded by the God-Man himself. The media consensus seems to be that the pope should say certain things in certain situations.
Lest we forget, Christ did not always respond to the world with speech. Before raising Lazarus in John 11, Jesus weeps. In His example, we find silence to be as meaningful as words.