The Guardian view on Pope Francis in Kraków: what religions are really about

2019-09-01 07:09:02


One and a half million people turned out for Pope Francis’s today. In a time of increasing scepticism towards authority, no other world leader could draw a crowd like that. Nor could any other 79-year-old have drawn 300,000 young people to hear what he had to say. So it is paradoxical that the pope’s message, and even his person, may have been almost as unwelcome to his devoutly Catholic hosts as his predecessor Pope Saint John Paul II was when he visited the communist government in 1979.

Like his predecessor, has mastered the theatrical side of his roles completely: both men have used small gestures to communicate great ideas to huge audiences in a way at once intimate and universal. John Paul II knelt to kiss the soil of his beloved motherland when he climbed from the plane that brought him home as pope; Francis paid his own bill and carried his own suitcase when appointed to the job – and he still doesn’t stay in the grand papal apartments.

But they have used these talents in the service of very different agendas. You can argue that the two men are united on the substance of doctrine, but even if this were true, style matters almost more, and in style the two great men are poles apart. “Who am I to judge?” Pope Francis . No one would have dared ask John Paul II who gave him the right to judge anyone. He called down judgment on the whole system of communism, and it seemed that history vindicated him.

Pope John Paul II never flinched from a fight; Pope Francis doesn’t back down either, but he has consistently attempted to work around his opponents ever since his experiments in autocracy as a young Jesuit backfired very badly on him. The two men also stand for different ideas of Christian identity. For the quintessential Christian nation was Poland; but Pope Francis wants a church without nations, which welcomes the poor of every country and those still poorer who no longer have a country of their own. The first visit he paid as pope was to the Mediterranean islet of Lampedusa, where desperate refugees arrive every week. He has no time nor sympathy for those who worry that this tide of human misery is also a barbarian invasion.

That is very much the attitude of the present Polish government, which combines fervent Catholicism with an equally passionate determination to ignore the opinions of the current pope. As soon as he arrived he upbraided the government for its refusal to accept Muslim asylum seekers, although he said it only once. This is a very different vision of Europe from that of John Paul II. Although the pope is well aware of the sufferings of Christians and others in the Middle East, he has consistently rejected the narrative of jihad and crusade. He refused it again when confronted with the ghastly murder of Father Jacques Hamel on Tuesday. We are at war, but it is not a war of religions.

When he went to Auschwitz, he showed what he believes religions are really about. What was done there went beyond politics: it was an attempt to annihilate all meaning from humanity. In the face of that horror, he prayed in silence, and he asked “for the gift of tears” for himself. That is sometimes the greatest eloquence.