By Nyuykongmo Gerald Jumbam
Of all the explosions that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent times, few have been more beneficial than the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, shedding a light here and there on what had been, in the eyes of some of its detractors, an institution antiquated and closed in on itself. So dramatic and wide have been the effects that I am even presuming that a few of my readers may recognize my title as a somewhat mischievous rendering of a subject from a man serving in that very institution as priest. This mischief lies in my inserting after the two words “an African”, a thing I have no apologies to make. The Second Vatican council has taught us enough that to speak well one must speak from a context, a history, a culture. We live in a global culture, yes, but it makes nonsense to forget our roots and the history that follows our being. After all, is that not one of the significant contributions Pope Francis has made in the Catholic Church – that we cannot always look at things from one direction; that the Catholic Church in its universality is larger than the Western World where a one insignificant issue of communion to the divorced and the remarried acutely felt by that enclave, held a whole universal family synod hostage last October. Yet, by placing undue emphasis on the question of the divorced and remarried during that synod, we risked forcing a Eurocentric outlook of the church on the throats of the most populated parts of today’s Catholic world – Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
In recent times, we have witnessed a thousand schools of thought contend in theological disputation hardly seen since the Second Vatican Council – where the Pope allows individual theologians feel the freedom to propose their opinions for discussion, allows ideas to be tested in the school of frank debate before they are adjudicated by authority. It was a veritable synodal spirit, a frank exchange of ideas and insights in theological disputation – remarkable in showing the spirit that the Second Vatican Council Fathers prayed for.
1. The Pope of the Poor and of Peace
The poor. The poor are at the center of the Gospel. At the heart of the Gospel. If we take away the poor from the Gospel, we cannot understand the whole message of Jesus Christ. That has been the message of Pope Francis from first to last, since he became pope. As a man who comes from the periphery that is Buenos Aires, he is acutely aware of the fact that the Third World has entered Vatican and is in the central stage of Catholic life. Because he comes from a church that puts the poor at its center, the pope’s first visit was to the helpless African captives in the Italian island of Lampedusa, then to the Jesuit Refugee Center in Rome, and then to the unemployed Italian people in Corsica.
Recently, he used the Vatican family synod as global theater to preach the gospel of Universal brotherhood significantly indicating that the Church is not Rome nor Europe, but a family of Christian communities rooted in different cultures some more ancient than Western culture, such as China, India, Japan, the traditional cultures of Africa and the communitarian cultures of South America. Yes, that was the great message of the hot debate that took place during the recent Catholic Family synod.
For him the Church is first about Christ and all the people of God, not the figure of the Pope. It was from the people of God that he first asked his blessing at that fateful first appearance at the Vatican window in St. Peter’s Square. He has given up everything that smacks of papal privilege – papal throne, papal apartment, popemobile security, golden ring, the pectoral cross encrusted with jewels, the shoulder cape and the red shoes. He is nothing short of poor Francis of Assisi his patron.
Then, Francis has engaged himself in dialogue with believers and nonbelievers. So he converses with Eugenio Scalfari the atheist to learn from others to whom the Spirit is also present. It is with this umpire spirit that he calls the synod of family for a frank and open discussion on anything that touches the human family and marriage. It is this that many things hidden under the cloud of silence have been laid bare for an onward march of the Church, and he does this without any apologies. By these deeds, he highlights the message of Paul in The Hebrews: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels’.
We are dealing with a pope who teaches by learning and who learns by teaching, and that is after all what the Catholic Church of our times is called to do – discerning the spirit of the times while holding on to the doctrinal truths of the Church.
With a combination of moral authority, conviction and example, Francis has convinced the world that a special passion for the poor and for peace is the only way to a bright future. He keeps the world reminded everyday – especially in his Evangelii Gaudium – that investing in meeting the human rights of food, shelter and education of the poor, is what the living God wants of us his creatures today. Pope Francis does not need to visit Africa before he identifies with the people. His words and actions are African. And we must render thanks to Latin America for producing this salt of excellence of a man, which Christ, relying on, has dropped into the boiling soup pot of Church hierarchy to produce this delicious meal that the entire world is enjoying now.
2. Disgrace, Disgrace, Disgrace
The case of the hundreds of African human beings drowned in the Italian Lampedusa island on September 2013 drew public attention to the inhuman culture which is not willing to accept fellow men as human beings even in civilized Europe. It reminded us that racial intolerance still dominates this world. The spotlight settled on the many African lives that perished in this sea under the watchful eye of those who could rescue a situation. Before that very macabre incident, Pope Francis – a man who has established himself as a global voice – had chosen this very Sicilian Island of Lampedusa to make profound utterances against all forms of discrimination and human indifference created by imperialism and fostered by that international hypocrisy beautifully baptized ‘globalization’. After just a month, hundreds of Eritreans and Ethiopians drowned in this very sea. In fact, it was a spectacle revolting to the human spirit and reminiscent of what entire peoples suffered during the degradingslave trade in the inhuman hands of what someone rightly called merchants of African ‘human flesh’.
In fact, Lampedusa last September 2013 reminded every African with a sense of history of the infamous Tree of Forgetfulness, where, in the words of the Nigerian Wole Soyinka: “The function was this: when slaves were brought from the inland towns and settlements of West Africa, …they were placed in stockades, forts, then, before embarkation, subjected to ritual processes which included moving in circles around that infamous tree. The purpose was to make them forget their land, their homes, their kinfolk, and even the very occupation they once knew – in short, forget their former existence , wipe their minds clean of the past and be receptive to the stamp of strange places.”
Pope Francis thundered in Lampedusa: “Where is your brother? the voice of his blood cries even to me, God says. This is not a question addressed to others: it is a question addressed to me, to you, to each one of us. These our brothers and sisters seek to leave difficult situations in order to find a little serenity and peace, they seek a better place for themselves and for their families – but they found death. How many times to those who seek this not find understanding, do not find welcome, do not find solidarity!”
Francis has assumed the standpoint of the underdog interpreting scriptures from this perspective, for in his very words: “Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” … today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”
But the message that caught world attention most, was the short address he gave immediately he heard of the atrocious incident of September in Lampedusa: “DISGRACE, DISGRACE, DISGRACE.” Disgrace to mankind. In these solemn words he represented Mahatma Ghandi, Rev. Martin Luther king jr. and Madiba Nelson Mandela in their promotion of justice and human dignity for all peoples in the world. That is why, though not having visited any African country, he has done what the African people expect a religious leader of his caliber to do – visiting them more in spirit, taking decisions that include them and sharing in their predicament. But there is still more to what this Servant of the Servants of God represents in the global context.
3. Tied in a Single Garment of Destiny
I believe the Pope’s recent January 2015 visit to the typhoon-devastated Tacloban in the Philippines brought out the best in Pope Francis as it did at Lampedusa. Francis two months ago moved to this poverty-stricken storm-devastated area with the instincts of prophetic authority. Once there, during homily time, he set aside his prepared English text and spoke in his mother tongue(Spanish) to adequately express the depths of his heart. His homily was an embrace, an embrace of thousands who had lost their loved ones and the millions who had lost homes.
Francis addressed their hearts with the following words: “So many of you have lost everything. I do not know what to tell you. But surely he [Jesus on the cross] knows what to tell you! So many of you have lost members of your family. I can only be silent; I accompany you silently, with my heart,”
Many in the crowd wept as Pope Francis spoke, overcome by the memory of the November 8, 2013 storm that leveled entire villages and left more than 7,000 people dead or missing in the Philippines. Naputo, one of the Filipino survivors of that terrible typhoon present at that Holy Mass, wept uncontrollably at hearing the consoling words of a man who left far off Rome to come and identify with them in their pain. “In all these months,” Naputo said, “nobody had told us that.” Days after Francis’ visit, Naputo and friends were still asking, “Why did we not feel that, until the pope came?” The answer to this question is in Christ’s following words: “And his teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.”
Francis the pope of the periphery has distinguished himself as a Christian leader who takes acutely Christ’s mission of identifying, without regrets, with the Samaritans of the world.
I am mindful of the interconnectedness of all communities in the world. We cannot sit idly by in Cameroon and not be concerned about what happens in the Philippines. Misfortune anywhere is misfortune everywhere. As people who share a common humanity, we are caught in an unpreventable network of empathy, ‘tied in a single garment of destiny’. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “them-and-us” mentality. If Pope Francis speaks about a poor Filipino at Tocloban he is speaking about a poor Cameroonian at Mbokam. Anyone who lives in the world can never be considered an outsider…and to that, Africans are most happy with Pope Francis.
A distinguished Afro-American poet Maya Angelou once said: “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In the spirit of Maya Angelou Francis has taught us that it is not how much we give but how much love we put into the giving, that matters. Jesus Christ did not just speak words, he did not just do deeds, he came down to level of the poor and shared in their humanity, their suffering and their struggles. That is what Pope Francis is doing and did in a very wonderful way with his visit to the Philippines.
The world is pleased, but nowhere as delighted as the poor, the underprivileged, and the afflicted around the globe, who see in the present pope the personification of Jesus in the Bible and the embodiment of the kind of spiritual leader the Church desperately needed.
4. The African Predicament
Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with a Ghanaian friend-priest who at one point of our discussion was against what he termed my ‘plentiful praise’ of Pope Francis as he spoke with much regret at the fact that Francis hasn’t visited Africa which to him was a sign that Africa was not his priority. I told him cheerily but with the deepest of convictions that Pope Francis’ preoccupation about Africa is informed, mature and total, because in a single action, he went deep into the root cause of the predicament of that continent with his message at Lampedusa. What Africa has needed , I told him, has been a world that embraces them as absolute sharers of that humanity which God gave humankind and embellished it like the coat of old testament Joseph with many beautiful colors. The root of that issue, which Pope Francis is highly aware, is the forced immigration some centuries ago – that despicable trade on human beings called slave trade which reduced the humanity and manpower of an entire continent, carrying them in their millions to their ‘masters’ lands. And that, Francis, indirectly asked in Lampedusa, if you had reduced the humanity of people and forced them in slavery to work in your plantations and those plantations build your civilization then it will be injustice on them today, to deprive the grand-sons of those slaves legitimate immigration to the towns and cities their dehumanized ancestors helped to build. His message in that Italian Island came to the Western world like a thunderbolt. And Francis is very clear about this. That is why he is quiet about Africa because he knows with the discernment of prophetic authority, that message is central and enough for that suffering continent. That is why clear-thinking Africans hold Francis in very high esteem despite the fact that he hasn’t touch foot on their shores.
My Ghanaian friend then nodded in deep thought and approval at the truth of what I was lightheartedly telling him though surging from sound and tangible meditation.
The African continent is one of the most misinterpreted and wrongly quoted places in the world because few people take the time to make genuine inquiries about what it truly is. I shall end this reflection with a solemn plea which only the Synod of African Bishops can better express. In its final message some years ago the Synod made the following call: “To the great powers of the world, we plead: treat Africa with respect and dignity […] Africa is not helpless. Our destiny is still in our hands. All she is asking for is the space to breathe and thrive.” Pope Francis has proven he is the first global voice that has profoundly understood this message and has splendidly given it expression in his artless message of mercy and universal brotherhood. Compassion! Therein lays the central message of his pontificate. In fact, he has charted a compassionate course for a troubled world, dedicated a whole year on Compassion, marking the Way and showing the people the well-lit path to God. But make no mistake about it, his compassion is not a virtue for the feeble but a symbol of strength – it is consoling and disarming yet incisive and penetrating; for it is engaging mercy with the seal of bold truth. To me, Pope Francis is, in modern times, delivering magnificently on the dreams of Jesus Christ in the Gospels on how his apostles, his disciples, all Christians are suppose to handle authority, and I feel, it is to this great pontiff, that present and future Christian authorities must all go for sustenance and inspiration.
 Cf. POPE FRANCIS I, Letter to a Non-Believer, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130911_eugenio-scalfari.html. Vatican, 4 September 2013; also Cf. CATHOLIC HERALD, Atheist Interviewer asked Pope Francis to Bless his Family, http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/10/03/atheist-asked-pope-francis-to-bless-his-family/, date of access: 3 October 2013.
 It is a tree found on the coast of the ancient city of Ouidah, in the present-day Republic of Benin, during the days of slave trade. See W. SOYINKA, Of Africa, Yale University Press, Yale 2012, 67.