In his first address on the world’s affairs to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis was very clear about one thing: no one should assume that because he is devoted to the poor and the goal of peace in the world, that he deviates from the substance of the message of his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
On Friday, the newly elected pontiff expressed serious concern for the “spiritual poverty” of the world as represented by a rejection of both God and objective standards of morality.
Borrowing a phrase from Benedict, Pope Francis told representatives from 180 nations that he rejects the “tyranny of relativism,” which, he said, “makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.” Francis said that while he praised the efforts of those who “dedicate themselves to helping the sick, orphans, the homeless and all the marginalized,” he was equally concerned about the “spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously.”
The pontiff asserted that the world cannot attain the goal of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, to build world peace, without truth. Referring to the “dictatorship of relativism,” and the importance of clear moral standards, Francis said, “There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion.”
Francis said that in choosing his new name he was evoking St. Francis of Assisi, a familiar figure to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Reminding the diplomats that the word “pontiff” means “bridge-builder,” the pope said that he hoped to create “real spaces of authentic fraternity” between peoples and cultures. “In this work, the role of religion is fundamental,” Francis said.
It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God, while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam. At the Mass marking the beginning of my ministry, I greatly appreciated the presence of so many civil and religious leaders from the Islamic world. And it is also important to intensify outreach to non-believers, so that the differences which divide and hurt us may never prevail, but rather the desire to build true links of friendship between all peoples, despite their diversity.
Regarding the new pope’s first diplomatic address, John Allen, Jr., senior correspondent for National Catholic Reporter, said, “Based on Friday’s speech, at least, anyone who saw his election as a repudiation of the broad philosophical and theological outlook of Benedict XVI probably has another thing coming.”
As a side note, Allen observes that the pope gave his address in Italian, a break in tradition from the usual French for diplomatic settings. Allen reports that, according to the Vatican, Pope Francis can understand both French and English, but is not yet accustomed to using those languages in public speeches.
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Dr. Matthew Bunson, a correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor and biographer of Pope Francis, said that, in Argentina, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio served “as the conscience of the nation,” and was a “very powerful and prophetic voice and an immensely popular one.” Bunson stated that Francis “proved very much a bridge-builder” in Argentina, while he also “became the moral voice for the nation.”
Bunson added, “The chief message is that we have in Pope Francis somebody who will bring reform but who perceives as well that reform must always be tied to spiritual renewal.”