The Infographic Pontiff?

The refreshingly broad geographic purview of Pope Francis’ Urbi et orbi Christmas benediction, delivered to the faithful in St. Peter’s Square as a greeting to the world and the city, and to all Christians in the city and throughout the world, newly displayed the spectacular breadth of Pope’s call for peace across the world in a globalized age.  As the Easter Sunday Urbi et orbi papal benediction included imprecations and injunctions for peace in the Middle East, “and particularly between Israelis and Palestinians,” hoping for Godspeed in the process of negotiations, “peace in Iraq,” and “above all for dear Syria,” Mali, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and across the Korean peninsula, Francis’ Christmas Homily illustrated the extent Francis’ direction of his annual pastoral message beyond both sola scriptura and beyond issues of church doctrine.

The homily’s wide geographic compass–containing a level of detail so tellingly absent from the generic breadth of recent predecessors in communicating the significance world peace–suggests a far broader notion of the church than was followed by his immediate predecessors, and indeed a needed geographic specificity in the relation of the pontiff to the faithful:   before some 70,000 faithful, the pontiff resumed a similar itinerary of sites of the persistent absence of worldly peace, touching similar landmarks in a tour of global conflicts from South Sudan to Syria, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Iraq. Francis’ comprehensive roundup of global hotspots took its brief in refreshingly literal terms as addressing “omnium ecclesiorum Urbis et Orbis,” by effectively mapping commanding Hotspots of civil unrest and travail across our inhabited world, and of course hoping for future tranquility.

This indication of continued horrors we might too easily neglect is a far cry from how the global maps commissioned by Gregory XIII in the 1580s.  If the monumental cycle of maps in the Galleria delle carte geografiche expanded the image and presence of Italy in the Mediterranean, as well as its significance to the worldly church, and the above Loggia offered a canvas for tracing missionary routes to different continents, Francis’ mapping of suffering dramatically departed from the magisterial function of the church in dispensing dispensing worldly teachings, and suggests a way to broaden the vocal role of church in a globalized long considered one of the earliest globes to depict the New World in detail, if the third to survive.  T.  Perhaps this came from his appreciation of the actual difficulty of prayers for worldly peace.  Francis’ homily gave new breadth to his sense of moments “both bright and dark” in worldly politics.  Whatever the reason, breadth doubt informed the sense of peace and what peace would entail–his procession from St Peter’s basilica gave prominent position to pairs of children from Italy, the Philippines, Lebanon, his native Argentina and Congo, as if in an embodied objective correlative of worldly suffering among Christian believers, and an infographic that could be held before the eyes of the faithful, and remind us of the great stakes of any future map for worldly peace at the start of the third millennium.

As the first non-European pontiff, no doubt the former Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio was acutely conscious of his charge for ensuring global comprehensiveness within the Church, as well as of expanding the doctrinal focus of his immediate predecessors.  Francis openly joked on assuming St. Peter’s throne that his fellow cardinals of seeking a new bishop of Rome that they went “almost to the end of the world.”  And long before being anointed by Twitterfeeds with the hashtag #BestPopeEver, he suggested a broad perspective on the alleviation of and attention to worldly suffering and the active role of the church in its alleviation, a consciousness no doubt present in his adoption–the first time for a Roman pontiff–of the name of the Franciscan founder, St. Francis of Assisi.  His appreciation of thee relative nature of peace may have surely derived from his personal experience and exposure to dictatorship as a Jesuit during Argentina’s Dirty War (guerra suicamay have made many and multiple compromises to preserve peace; Bergoglio was quite familiar with Argentinian death squads, and seems to have minimized the 30,000 deaths of that place and period, in ways that  surely invested a different view of “peace” as an arduous uphill climb.  (His relative silence in a period of terror terrifyingly paralleled the minimization of violence of the dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla, and he has revealed something like a dedication to atonement ever since he offered Videla comfort and communion–if not his concealment of political prisoners–charges perhaps due to pragmatism in the moment, but which the pontiff has not clarified satisfactorily.)

 

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But to forgive is Christian, and to err human, and since he worked within the Argentine political structure, Francis has attained the unique perspective to turn a significantly more tolerant eye on the Christian faithful and to devote considerably more attention to the scale of worldly suffering.

And when Francis evoked a cast of characters in need of peace and hope, from child soldiers to migrants,  and providing something like a literal tour of moments of worldly peace, his sermon had a clearly cartographical quality:  he offered a sort of virtual travel to or evocation of places of unrest that merited personal papal attention (or intervention) and indeed the spiritual attention from the world’s religious.   He took more seriously the global nature of the address that hoped for “peace in the world” from human trafficking to natural disasters in his “urbi et orbibenediction that embraced the literal scope of the sermon hoping to foster global unity and peace–even if his history of compromise and possible collusion suggest a more problematic history of personal involvement in reigns of terror.   Following the time-honored presumption of ecclesiastic universality that befits such an annual homily, Francis openly addressed once more the “ongoing conflict in Syria,” hoping that followers of all religions were working for peace there, and praying for a resolution to civil strife, hoping that the Lord would act to “foster social harmony” in Southern Sudan, as well as the Central African Republic, hoping for dialogue to grow in Nigeria and the Holy land, and that tragedies never again befall migrants as they did this year at Lampedusa, an island off the coast of northern Africa, ever again.

The breadth of his call to conscience was striking, and has been widely celebrated.  “Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fueling hatred and vengeance,” hoping to spare future suffering for the Syrian people, and hoping that the Prince of Peace might also help to heal the constant attacks on innocent and defenseless in Nigeria, the frequency of violence in “beloved Iraq,” so often struck by senseless violence, and that hope and consolation reach the many displaced from the Horn of Africa to the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and those displaced by natural disasters in the Philippines.  In providing a personalized message of support and succor, Francis also offered something of an infographic of global Hotspots of need and humanitarian disaster far more explicitly than his predecessors would have ever articulated, focussed as they were on issues of doctrine as much as of worldly conflicts or wars.  If we don’t know what newspapers Francis reads, his words echoed the March public comments Valerie Amos who, as head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), described the many “neglected” areas she met as “In the last year alone, I visited more than 40 countries from Syria to Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, Afghanistan and Myanmar, and saw and heard for myself the terrible conditions that families face and their harrowing stories–loss of loved ones and homes.”  These “neglected regions,” surrogates for the neglected, offer a new geographic language for understanding regions of humanitarian assistance and need whose rhetoric seems modeled after that of maps to show the humanitarian Hotspots that are familiar from maps of global warming, and which provide new visual models to contemplate the increasing depth of inter-relationhips within the world.

 

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Or our own globalized sense of the multiplication of hazard Hotspots so disparate to be hard to process or even get one’s mind around–also a tragic challenge in the face of global warming.

 

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Pope Francis seems to realize and relish the challenges both of ecclesiastic leadership and of providing comfort and consolation in an age of globalism.  In the age of elegant but impersonal infographics, the expansive geographical breadth of spiritual compassion across the world seems a response to globalization that tabulated the costs of what we too often lose from the 24-hour news cycle:  for if the pontiff’s world tour was a worthy exercise of extending a globally frayed compassion, it was also a cursory review of selective dim points of civil strife across the inhabited globe that was (as befits the medium, perhaps) short on particular details or local context, and as an impassioned address fell a bit short, as well as a depressingly long laundry list.  But that said, the infographic that Francis provided to believers was a welcome inclusion of specifics to hold before their mind, in contrast to His austere predecessors, the world-travelling ecclesiological conservative John Paul II and the even more austere Benedict XVI, for all the Enlightened pretensions that the undoubtedly intentional echo of Benedict XIV suggests.  Indeed, Francis offered a telling shift from the dominant concern of his predecessors with questions of catechism, arising from their magisterial notion of the pontiff as head of the church.

The papal Christmas benediction was a sort of infographic for a world weary of war, where He could only hope to offer succor or faith for the many victimized and displaced world-wide in hot-spots of civil unrest, an attempt at offering a sense of hope which seems so thinly stretched.  Can we process the infographic that he gives us, and use it to keep an eye on needs for worldly assistance and sympathy?

 

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And the new vision he has presented in the elevation of Cardinals in the very first month of 2014 provided a refreshing image of the church whose collective memory and spiritual body has been for perhaps far too long identified with Italian bishops, and whose corpus mysticum has been difficult to separate from the Italian peninsula–or Italian cities such as Venice and Rome–even as it has gained a truly global status over the twentieth century, removed from a colonial apparatus if also redolent of colonial ties.  Pope Francis’ recent timely elevation to the cardinalate from regions in Latin America, Asia, and Africa make a case for the church’s global face–and distance the worldly body of the church from a clerical career path or ladder often moving from Venice and Turin.

Indeed, the infographic provides a compelling new vision for the body of the Church, and its ties to believers, as well as its charismatic body whose legitimacy derives from divine intervention in human history but is sustained by continued faith.  For in selecting a cardinals’ college that includes not only Managua, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Ares, but Seoul, Les Cayes in Haiti, in addition to the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and the Philippines, Francis clearly intends that the church begin to present an image of itself to its believers and to the world that is globalized, rather than rooted in one peninsula.

 

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This is refreshing, and particularly timely–in light of the planned February 22 consistory in Rome. If we have seen narrow-minded screeds about how “the US is getting skunked” in this reconfiguration of the church’s public profile, this is also an affirmation that the mystical body of the church derives from its continued ongoing relevance to its faithful and to those in need.

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Filed under #BestPopeEver, Christmas papal homily, infographics, Pope Francis, St. Peter's Basilica, Urbi et orbi

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