Pope Francis and the language of hope

Pope Francis delivers his homily as he celebrates mass in Sibari, in the southern Italian region of Calabria at the end of his one-day visit in the city, on June 21, 2014.  Pope Francis launched a scathing attack on the mafia Sunday during a trip to the heartland of one of the most feared syndicates, and said no more children should die at the hands of organized crime.</p>

Pope Francis delivers his homily as he celebrates mass in Sibari, in the southern Italian region of Calabria at the end of his one-day visit in the city, on June 21, 2014. Pope Francis launched a scathing attack on the mafia Sunday during a trip to the heartland of one of the most feared syndicates, and said no more children should die at the hands of organized crime.

In the mafia-infested, southern Italian region of Calabria, Pope Francis’s moral rhetoric took another long stride the weekend before last. Vatican TV footage showed the pope in white, reading his text, while 250,000 people standing in the heat at Piana di Sibari raised applause as his gently rhythmic voice went stern, singling out the ‘Ndrangheta, a regional crime syndicate:

“The ‘Ndrangheta is this: adoration of evil and contempt of the common good. This evil must be fought, must be expelled. It must be told no. The church, which is so committed to educating consciences, must always expend itself even more so that good can prevail. Our children ask this of us....Those who in their lives have taken this road of evil, such as the mobsters, they are not in communion with God, they are excommunicated!

No previous pope had ever excommunicated organized crime, which “controls an estimated 8-10 percent of Italian GDP,” according to the Irish Times. 'Ndrangheta’s share of that take, which pulls from Germany and Austria, is an estimated $75 billion annual revenue stream, or about 3.5 percent of Italy's gross domestic product, USA Today reports.

Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, an investigation of the Mafia in Naples, praised Francis in La Repubblica for exposing “‘Ndrangheta’s self-celebratory depiction of itself as some sort of Robin Hood outfit.” Saviano now requires 24/7 police protection.

Francis’s trip included a visit with the imprisoned relatives of a 3-year-old boy who was killed in a crossfire over a drug deal. Images of the pope and his comments add weight to the media narrative that Francis is advancing a moral agenda in language no other world leader uses.

But absent a formal document, Francis’s sweeping statement would leave it to parish priests in a region in the ‘Ndrangheta chokehold to deny communion to known mobsters – at their own risk.

Catholicism by Rev. Richard P. McBrien defines excommunication as “the expulsion of an individual from the church, more particularly the Eucharist.” Excommunication typically has a document, naming names, as when John Paul II in the 1980s excommunicated the breakaway sect, Society of St. Pius X, led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre for bolting from Vatican II reforms.

“Anyone who is surprised by the excommunications [of the Mafia] must not have been reading the Gospels,” said Rev. James Martin, S.J. editor at large of America, the Jesuit magazine. “If you lead a life of violence, revenge and murder you have already removed yourself from communion with Christ. In a sense, the Mafia excommunicated itself.”

Francis’s rhetoric on moral fundamentals is intensifying, albeit in a very different way from Benedict and John Paul, who stressed theological unity.

“He is without question the most popular human being alive today,” notes the writer Alma Guillermoprieto, a professed non-Catholic, on Matter.com.

“Barack Obama gets an average of 1,300 retweets on his [Twitter] account,” she writes. “Pope Francis gets twenty thousand.”

The pope draws on average 80,000 people to his Wednesday sermons at St. Peter’s Square. On June 11, Francis held an audience the day before World Day Against Child Labor, an issue any pope would support.

The transcript of his comments shows a clear alignment with people in life’s deep ruts: “Many times, in fact, we aren’t able to understand God’s plan and we realize that we aren’t capable of ensuring our own happiness and eternal life. However, exactly by experiencing our limits and our deficiencies, the Spirit comforts us...”

Then, in a striking shift of oratory, the pope turns to an imagined audience of overlords: “When a person lives in evil, when they blaspheme God’s name, when they exploit others, when they lord over others, when they live just for money, vanity, power and pride, then the blessed fear of God gives us a warning. Watch out! All of this power and money, with all of your pride and vanity, you will not be happy.”

Francis then swings back to an imagined base of people struggling in a hard world:

“I think of those who live [by promoting] human trafficking and slave labor. Do you think these people have the fear of God in their hearts?”

He compared slave labor profiteers to “those who manufacture arms to fuel wars.”

The power of the pulpit may seem a sentimental notion in a world where slavery is a criminal industry that thrives on mass poverty. But to nuns and priests, and the many lay workers, working in trenches of the globe’s beleaguered places, Francis is pushing an agenda of concern for people working at ground-level for people at the edges of civilization.

“Religious networks have a huge role to play,” Nigel Baker, the UK Ambassador to the Holy See, wrote in a blog on initiatives to halt human trafficking.

“Women religious in Africa,” wrote Baker, “are often first responders, on the scene to help the survivors and rebuild trust within the community. Organizations like the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Caritas International Federation are on the ground with a long term presence in countries from Sri Lanka to Colombia to witness, support, rehabilitate and regenerate.”

Francis is articulating an ethos of first responders as part of an organic moral presence, an infrastructure of missionary work that is just as often human rights work which rarely registers on the global media grid.

To Rev. Bruce Teague, a priest in Sheffield, Mass., the pope’s language reflects “the immigrant experience of an Italian raised in the Americas. He’s trying to experience God’s love through his own life and in encountering the lives of ordinary people. In Argentina he set up community parishes like police officers do community policing, taking the church to the people.”

Teague was raised in 1950s, working-class Boston; he was sexually abused by a Dorchester priest at age 9. Decades later, a priest himself reading of clergy abuse lawsuits, he cast lines to other survivors, and eventually stood at the grave of the priest who had abused him, offering forgiveness.

Teague is active in Bearing Witness at Auschwitz, an interfaith group that meets annually at the former concentration camp, “praying for the dead, with rites barred by the Nazis,” he told GlobalPost.

“People are projecting stuff on this pope,” says Teague. “There’s a resonance going on. His language is creating an echo effect with folks’ deepest desires to be loved by God. Francis speaks to the longing of the human heart. He’s speaking in a more ordinary idiom, culture from the ground up, unburdened by rhetoric traditionally associated with Vatican. He seems to be a guy who authentically says he’s a sinner.”

The photograph of Francis kneeling in a confessional underscored that idea. He began his first long interview last year, with the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, by saying, “I am a sinner.”

He reinforced the point in telling inmates at the prison in Calabria last week, “The Lord always forgives, always accompanies, always understands; but it is up to us to let ourselves be understood, forgiven and accompanied.”

He ended the visit, as he often does with groups, asking the prisoners to pray for him.

As superior of the Jesuit community of Argentina during the late-1970s “dirty war,” Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio clashed with priests sympathetic to Liberation Theology and lost his position.

He was later accused of complicity in the kidnapping of two Jesuits who were tortured and later released – a charge forcefully disputed in the reporting by Paul Vallely in Pope Francis: Untying the Knots.

Francis’s paradigm shift in later years toward deeper involvement with the poor was a swing toward Liberation Theology. That capacity to change, in the self-referential context of a sinner, is central to a populist personality quite different from the monarchical persona of John Paul and Benedict, popes who stressed church teaching as the arbiter of morality. Frances is engaging life as it exists for the world's masses, far from the towers of Rome.

In whatever way, however, the Vatican bureaucracy or national bishops’ conferences in the developed world respond, Francis is trying to cut loose from the scandal narrative, putting the papacy — at least himself — on a different platform. The looming issue he faces for the church's credibility is structural reform in response to the clergy abuse cases in many countries, long concealed by church officials, including cardinals in the Vatican today.

But the pope is nothing if not resilient in advancing a counter-story to the aching scandal narrative.

The symbolic language he is creating, week by week, scene by scene, gesture by gesture, has reached people across borders and cultures in a way that no world figure has done since Nelson Mandela.

Washing the feet of the Muslim girl in prison on Holy Thursday may be the most powerful symbolic statement by any pope since John Paul’s exultant return to Poland when it was still a part of the Soviet Empire, more than 30 years ago. Those images of a radiant pope, openly encouraging aspirations of freedom, have faded from the public psyche.

The words and images advanced by Francis are still on the early side of achieving a critical mass. And there is no guarantee the accumulative effect will have a lasting impact for Christianity, apart from the affections people feel – or as Teague says — project upon this pope.

Even symbolic narratives need a turning point where language meets reality, and rhetoric achieves a resolution grounded in the real world. Francis is not at that place yet on the abuse crisis, but on the Vatican bank and reform of the Roman Curia his reforms are taking root. As his statements and sermons enlarge the idea of human rights his journey is a story compelling in itself.

GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry co-produced the Frontline documentary “Secrets of the Vatican,” and is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.