By Robin Gomes
In his traditional encounter with the ambassadors to the Holy See, Pope Francis reflected on the numerous crises unleashed by the pandemic, and on other problems affecting the world, stressing that the fraternity is the true cure for them.
Pope Francis met the ambassadors in the Hall of Benediction in St. Peter’s Basilica, maintaining health protocols. The traditional meeting, originally scheduled for January 25, had to be postponed because of the Pope’s sciatica pain.
Despite the social distancing demanded by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Holy Father noted, their meeting “is meant to be a sign of hope . . . closeness and mutual support to which the family of nations should aspire”. And in this spirit, he said, he was making his upcoming visit to Iraq in March.
The Holy Father then reviewed some of the crises provoked or laid bare by the pandemic and examined the opportunities they offer to build a more humane, just, supportive and peaceful world.
The pandemic, the Pope said, has brought humanity face-to-face with two unavoidable dimensions of human existence: sickness and death. They remind us of the value of every individual human life and its dignity, from conception in the womb until its natural end. He lamented that a growing number of legal systems seem to be moving away from their inalienable duty to protect human life at every one of its phases.
The pandemic has reminded us of the right of each human being to dignified care, and that “each human person is an end in himself or herself, and never simply a means to be valued only for his or her usefulness”. “If we deprive the weakest among us of the right to life,” he asked, “how can we effectively guarantee respect for every other right?” He urged political and government leaders to work above all to ensure universal access to basic healthcare, medicines and treatment, pointing out that “concern for profit should not be guiding a field as sensitive as that of healthcare”. He called for an equitable distribution of the vaccines, based not on purely economic criteria but on the needs of all, especially of peoples most in need. In this regard, he urged that access to vaccines must be accompanied by responsible personal behaviour aimed at halting the spread of the virus, employing the necessary measures of prevention.
The pandemic, the Pope continued, has also demonstrated once again that the earth itself is fragile and in need of care. The ecological crisis caused by the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources, he pointed out, is much more complex and enduring, and requires shared long-term solutions. The impact of climate change, such as extreme weather events of flooding and drought, and malnutrition or respiratory disease, entail consequences that persist for a considerable time.
While stressing the need for international cooperation to overcome these crises of our common home, Pope Francis hopes that the November United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), will effectively address the consequences of climate change.
In this regard, he recalled the repercussions of climate change on several regions of the world. Numerous small islands in the Pacific Ocean are in danger of gradually disappearing; while floods in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam and the Philippines, have caused many deaths and destroyed livelihoods; and increased temperatures have caused devastating fires in Australia and California.
In Africa, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger faced acute food insecurity last year with millions suffering from hunger. In South Sudan, where there is a risk of famine with over one million undrenourished children, the Pope urged the country’s authorities to overcome misunderstandings and pursue political dialogue for the sake of full national reconciliation.
Economic and social crises
The restrictions on freedom of movement imposed by governments to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the Pope said, have especially harmed medium-sized and small businesses, adversely affecting employment and consequently the life of families and entire sectors of society, especially those that are most fragile. This economic crisis, he noted, has highlighted another illness of our time: that of an economy based on the exploitation and waste of both people and natural resources. What is needed is an economy that is “at the service of men and women, not vice versa”, an economy that “brings life, not death, one that is inclusive and not exclusive, humane and not dehumanizing, one that cares for the environment and does not despoil it”.
Victims of isolation and closed borders
The pandemic, the Pope continued, has particularly hit those in the informal job sector, with many of them exposed to exploitation through illegal or forced labour, prostitution and various criminal activities, including human trafficking. Economic stability, the Pope said, must be ensured for all, so as to avoid the scourge of exploitation and to combat usury, corruption and other injustices. With longer hours before computers and other media due to the isolation, the poor and unemployed are rendered more vulnerable to cybercrime, including fraud, trafficking in persons, prostitution and child pornography.
Pope Francis also noted that the closing of borders due to the pandemic, combined with the economic crisis, have also aggravated a number of humanitarian emergencies, such as those in Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa, Mozambique, Yemen and Syria. With regard to economic sanctions on countries, he said, they affect mainly the more vulnerable segments of the population rather than political leaders. He hoped that they will be relaxed with an improved flow of humanitarian aid.
He hoped, too, that the current crisis be an occasion for forgiving, or at least reducing, the debt that burdens poorer countries and prevents their recovery and development.
Migrants and refugees
Speaking about the increased number of migrants and their worsening conditions last year because of closed borders, Pope Francis calls for addressing the root causes that force people to migrate and supporting the countries that host them.
The Holy Father also noted the dramatic increase in the number of refugees and called for renewed commitment to protect them, together with internally displaced persons and the many vulnerable people forced to flee from persecution, violence, conflicts and wars. In the central region of the Sahel, he noted, the number of internally displaced persons has increased twentyfold.
Crisis of politics
Pope Francis also noted that political crises have worsened in some countries during the pandemic, such as in Myanmar. While expressing his closeness to the people of the nation, he lamented that that “the path to democracy undertaken in recent years was brusquely interrupted” by the recent coup. He hoped that the detained political leaders “will be promptly released as a sign of encouragement for a sincere dialogue aimed at the good of the country”.
“The democratic process,” he said, “calls for pursuing the path of inclusive, peaceful, constructive and respectful dialogue among all the components of civil society in every city and nation.” This crisis of politics and of democratic values, he pointed out, is also on the international level, with repercussions on the entire multilateral system. But he also noted encouraging signs such as progress in the prohibition of nuclear weapons and in arms reduction.
In this context, the Pope wished that 2021 be the year of the end of the Syrian conflict, of the resumption of direct dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, of stability in Lebanon and of peace in Libya. He expressed concern over the situation in the Central African Republic and in Latin America in general, where, he said, political and social tensions are rooted in profound inequalities, injustices and poverty that offend the dignity of persons. He also expressed concern over tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the South Caucasus.
Pope Francis also expressed concern over the scourge of terrorism, whose attacks, he said, have intensified in the last 20 years, with Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia as well as Europe experiencing it. He particularly regretted attacks on places of worship and reminded authorities of their duty to protect places of worship and defend freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Crisis of human relationships
According to the Pope, the most serious crisis of them all is that of "human relationship". It is "the expression of a general anthropological crisis, dealing with the very conception of the human person and his or her transcendent dignity." He expressed his conviction that "fraternity is the true cure for the pandemic and the many evils that have affected us ". "Along with vaccines, fraternity and hope are, as it were, the medicine we need in today’s world,” the Pope said.
The isolation and often loneliness due to the pandemic, he said, have brought out the need of every individual for human relationships. With schools and universities shifting to online educational platforms, a marked disparity in educational and technological opportunities has appeared, with many students falling behind in the natural process of schooling. Calling it a “sort of ‘educational catastrophe’”, he called for a renewed commitment to an education that engages society at every level, because education is a natural antidote to the individualistic culture and indifference.
Marriage and family life, the Pope noted, have also been affected, with many experiencing domestic violence. The pandemic has also had adverse effects on fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, with restrictions in public worship and in the educational and charitable activities of faith communities. “Even as we seek ways to protect human lives from the spread of the virus, the Pope said, “we cannot view the spiritual and moral dimension of the human person as less important than physical health.”