41 years a Jesuit, I had never met a pope.
Back in 1986, I was adviser to the Australian Catholic Bishops on Aboriginal land rights. Pope John Paul II came to Alice Springs, met with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and spoke strongly about the rights of Aborigines to retain title to their traditional lands.
Next day, a bishop told me the amusing story that the Pope had arrived at Alice Springs airport where he had mistaken Wagga’s Bishop William Brennan for me. Bishop Brennan was very gracious about the matter when we embraced during the sign of peace at mass.
Some years later I did some work for the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace in Rome. After one meeting, the President Cardinal Roger Etchegaray invited me to stay in Rome and to concelebrate mass with the Holy Father at a major event in St Peter’s Square the following Sunday.
I did not see any reason to change my Saturday flight. As I sat on the floor to celebrate mass with the staff of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Bangkok that Sunday morning, I told them that I knew where I would prefer to be.
On arrival in Rome two weeks ago to prepare for the Global Foundation’s roundtable on ‘Rejecting the “globalisation of indifference”: mobilising for a more inclusive and sustainable global economy’, the Australian Ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy QC, asked if I would like to meet the Pope. Without the slightest hesitation, I said I would.
The ambassador organised a ticket for me to attend the regular Wednesday papal audience with thousands of other pilgrims. But he assured me I would be in the front row with a good chance of meeting my Jesuit colleague with the name ‘Francis’.
The audience was due to commence at 10am. I arrived about 20 minutes early. The Pope was already working the room, moving through the crowd towards his white upholstered throne. By 9.45am, he was ensconced, painstakingly reading his initial catechesis for the Year of Mercy. He finished his delivery by 10.05am. I spared a thought for the pilgrims who were arriving just on time. Then followed half an hour of monsignori reading translations of the Pope’s remarks in various languages.
By 10.45 the Pope had greeted the bishops and monsignori on stage who had gathered for their photo opportunities. Francis started descending the stairs and I thought the event rather underwhelming.
But Francis did not beat any prompt exit. He spent the next 45 minutes greeting every individual in the bay immediately in front of me.
There were about 200 people there. As far as I could judge, you had to be confined to a wheelchair, a child with a life threatening illness, or a carer to be eligible for admission to that privileged space. I was completely overcome. Here was a pope living out everything he says, and doing it right under my nose.
He has often delighted in quoting Francis of Assisi, ‘Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words!’ The words had been spoken from the throne; now he was in real preaching mode with the people, especially the poor and the suffering.
Mothers wept as they embraced him. Kids played games and offered him gifts. People in wheelchairs extended every limb they could to reach him. He was totally present to each of them, oblivious of the cameras and mobile phones except when kids asked him to pose for a selfie.
He then turned to the ‘front row’ where I had been placed. Most of the people in this row were newly married couples. On my right was a young English couple who’d arrived in Rome without realising they needed a wedding garment for the day. They bought a set of white and black T shirts — one saying ‘Just Married’ and the other ‘Your blessings please’. Francis was only too happy to offer them his blessing.
On my left was a young Latin American couple dressed to the nines, the bride looking resplendent in her wedding dress and the groom dignified in his tuxedo.
I was there in my uncharacteristic clerical collar which I had purchased at Boston College a year ago when the rector had told me that it was advisable to wear clerical dress occasionally on campus. I later wrote to the rector telling him that I had finally found a use for the shirt.
As Francis approached, I offered him a bottle of Sevenhill Inigo Shiraz wine with the simple observation: ‘vino Australiano Gesuita’. He beamed his response: ‘acqua sacra’. Moving on to the next couple, he turned back, smiled very warmly, and said, ‘Thank you’. I came away delighted to have met a pope.
The Global Foundation’s Roman roundtable
I then settled down to prepare for the roundtable which brought together the most senior officers in the Vatican (Cardinals Parolin and Pell and Archbishop Paul Gallagher) with leaders of international agencies and organisations including Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Bertrand Badre, managing director and CFO of the World Bank, Dominic Barton, managing director of McKinsey & Company, and Baroness Scotland, the new secretary-general of the Commonwealth.
Over two days, we met at Villa Magistrale, the headquarters of the Sovereign Order of Malta on the Aventine Hill overlooking Rome and the Vatican. We discussed what was needed for the world economy to be more sustainable and inclusive.
Corporate CEOs like Dennis Bracy from US-China Clean Energy Forum, Mark Cutifani from Anglo-American, Rod Leaver from Lend Lease Asia, and Robert Thomson from News Corp kept us grounded and focused on the needs and challenges of business.
To date, we have worked on the presumption that the global economy can be rendered more inclusive only if it is growing. We need to confront this presumption. It may be correct. But then again some, including Pope Francis, have asserted the contrary.
To date, we have worked on the presumption that the global economy will be sustainable regardless of the situation of the planet. Now we need to confront this presumption. Some, including Pope Francis, have asserted that the global economy will be sustainable in the long term only if we confront and reverse the effects of climate change, the loss of biodiversity and water shortages.
Even climate sceptics need to concede that human activity has contributed to global warming regardless of the natural cycle of climate change, and that contribution has exacerbated the adverse impact of climate change on the planet. Action to mitigate the human effects on climate change is not only prudential; it is a moral imperative.
Where Francis starts to get into trouble with some from the west or from the north (depending on your geopolitical perspective) is in his questioning the myth of unlimited progress.
In Laudato Si’, he says: ‘If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.’
He is clearly at odds with those who assert that the key to the future is simply growing the pie so the poor can get more while the rich need not get less than what they already have, and that growing the pie is as good a way as any ultimately to save the planet.
Francis doesn’t buy this status quo position. He thinks there is a need to limit the size of the pie, for the good of the planet, and there is a need to redistribute the pie so that the poor get their equitable share.
The differences over these two presumptions presented us with a major challenge and a significant barrier to our working collaboratively towards a more inclusive and sustainable global economy.
Hailing from Argentina, Francis puts his trust neither in ideological Communism nor in unbridled capitalism. Like his predecessors Benedict and John Paul II he is unapologetic, asserting that ‘by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion’.
He has not known a regulated market that works well. He has not known a polity in which all including the rulers are under the rule of law. He questions any economic or political proposal from the perspective of the poor, and he is naturally suspicious of any economic or political solution which is likely to disadvantage the poor.
What for him may be a failure of the market might be seen by some of us who are used to well regulated markets in societies subject to the rule of law as a failure caused by market abuses which might be readily corrected by the application of right economic and political strategies.
Markets cannot be well regulated while many societies experience the absence of peace, the absence of the rule of law, the lack of coherence between values and the national interest of the nation state, and unbridgeable inequality.
We need to enhance international security, building the rule of law within multilateral organisations, and fostering the climate for investment sensitive to the triple bottom line — economic, social and environmental.
I return from Rome grateful that we have a pope prepared to open these questions, accompanied by senior prelates happy to mix it with business and community leaders seeking the common good of the planet and especially the good of the poor.
His words have provoked interest at the highest level in economic and political circles. His actions have inspired even the most cynical and reserved Vatican watchers.
Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University and a member of the Advisory Council of the Global Foundation which organised the Roman roundtable.
This article was first published in Eureka Street on 24 January 2016