By Inés San Martín
ROME (Crux) – Pope Francis said Feb. 8 that the COVID-19 pandemic shows there are parts of the world that are “seriously ill,” not as a result of the virus but in its natural environment, its economic and political processes, and even more so in in its human relationships.
“The pandemic shed light on the risks and consequences inherent in a way of life dominated by selfishness and a culture of waste, and it set before us a choice: either to continue on the road we have followed until now, or to set out on a new path,” Pope Francis told the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See.
The pontiff also waded into current events, lamenting the recent military coup in Myanmar.
“In these days, my thoughts turn particularly to the people of Myanmar, to whom I express my affection and closeness,” he said. “The path to democracy undertaken in recent years was brusquely interrupted by last week’s coup d’état. This has led to the imprisonment of different political leaders, whom I hope will be promptly released as a sign of encouragement for a sincere dialogue aimed at the good of the country.”
Pope Francis also remembered the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, calling terrorism “another serious scourge of our time,” and an “evil that has been growing since the seventies of the last century, culminating in the attacks that took place in the United States of America on 11 September 2001 that killed nearly three thousand people.”
“I think of terrorist attacks above all in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in Asia and Europe,” he said.” My thoughts turn to all the victims and their families who have lost loved ones to blind violence, motivated by ideological distortions of religion.”
Protection of places of worship, the Holy Father said, is part of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and a “duty incumbent upon the civil authorities, regardless of their political persuasion or religious affiliation.”
As he’s done several times before, the pontiff also called for “equitable distribution of the [COVID-19] vaccines, based not on purely economic criteria but on the needs of all,” after congratulating doctors and scientists for developing them in record time.
Pope Francis remarks came in what’s often described as his “State of the World” address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. Missing from the group was the United States’ representative, as President Joe Biden has yet to appoint one.
As Sally Axworthy, UK’s ambassador to the Holy See noted on Twitter, beyond being held at a later date- due to a flare-up in the pope’s sciatica, Monday’s encounter was also “slightly different” because all ambassadors wore a mandatory face mask and it was held in a larger hall.
— UK in Holy See 🇬🇧🇻🇦 (@UKinHolySee) February 8, 2021
Another thing different this time around was the pontiff’s speech itself, as he focused on the global impact of the pandemic, adding to his usual survey of countries and conflicts. Instead, he spoke of four large crises made evident by the global sanitary situation: A health crisis, an environmental one, an economic and social one, and a crisis of politics.
In his remarks, Pope Francis argued that the distanced allowed for by holding the meeting in the Hall of Blessings is “merely physical” because the summit itself is a “sign of the closeness and mutual support to which the family of nations should aspire.” This is all the more important, he said, during the coronavirus pandemic, as it is clear that “the virus knows no barriers nor can it easily be isolated. Overcoming it is thus a duty incumbent on each of us, as well as our countries.”
The Hall of Blessing, as shown by Chiara Porro, Australian ambassador to the Holy See:
In the beautiful Aula della Benedizione waiting for Pope Francis pic.twitter.com/MoY4BGsvdM
— Chiara Porro (@AusAmbHolySee) February 8, 2021
Right off-the-bat the pontiff referred to his upcoming trip to Iraq, scheduled for March 5-8, saying that everyone “looks forward to resuming personal contacts as quickly as possible,” and, in his case, that included overseas trips, “an important sign of the solicitude of the Successor of Peter for God’s People spread throughout the world and the dialogue of the Holy See with states.”
The Holy See has diplomatic relations with 183 states, in addition to the European Union and the Sovereign Military order of Malta. There are only a handful of countries not on the list, including China, North Korea and Bhutan.
Speaking about the health crisis, Pope Francis called for universal access to basic healthcare, with the creation of local medical clinics with structures that meet people’s need. “Concern for profit should not be guiding a field as sensitive as that of healthcare.”
He also said that the pandemic forced humanity to confront two “unavoidable dimensions of human existence: sickness and death.”
“In doing so, it reminded us of the value of life, of every individual human life and its dignity, at every moment of its earthly pilgrimage, from conception in the womb until its natural end,” he said. “It is painful, however, to note that under the pretext of guaranteeing presumed subjective rights, a growing number of legal systems in our world seem to be moving away from their inalienable duty to protect human life at every one of its phases.”
On the environmental crisis, a key concern for Pope Francis thought out his pontificate thus far, he argued that overcoming it demands international cooperation, and shared his hope that the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Glasgow next November, “will lead to effective agreement in addressing the consequences of climate change.”
“Now is the time to act, for we are already feeling the effects of prolonged inaction,” he said, before ticking off several examples of the repercussions of climate change. Topping the list were small islands in the Pacific Ocean that are gradually disappearing, the floods in Southeast Asia, and the devastating fires in Australia and California.
Under the header of economic and social crisis, Pope Francis noted that the need to contain the coronavirus led man governments to restrict movement, which led to the closing of business and a general slowdown in production, which had a domino effect throughout society, affecting those most fragile particularly hard.
“The resulting economic crisis has highlighted another illness of our time: that of an economy based on the exploitation and waste of both people and natural resources,” he said. “All too often, we have neglected solidarity and other values that make it possible for the economy to serve integral human development rather than particular interests.”
He also highlighted the added challenges migrants face due to the pandemic, and called for international organizations to work together to welcome and integrate those fleeing their homes.
Among the challenges resulting from this economic and social crisis, Pope Francis mentioned the increase of criminal activities, including human trafficking, exploitation, usury, corruption, “together with the many other injustices that occur daily under the weary and distracted gaze of our contemporary society.”
To address these, the pontiff urged shared initiatives “at the international level, especially to support employment and to protect the poorest sectors of the population.”
All of these crises, Pope Francis said towards the end of his remarks, “highlight a much deeper crisis, which in some way lies at the root of the others,” and that is the crisis of politics.
One of the hallmarks of the political crisis according to the pontiff is the challenge, if not inability, to seek common and shared solutions to world problems. This has been a “growing trend,” and becoming more widespread even in countries “with a long tradition of democracy.”
“Sad to say, the crisis of politics and of democratic values is reflected also on the international level, with repercussions on the entire multilateral system and the obvious consequence that Organizations designed to foster peace and development – on the basis of law and not on the ‘law of the strongest’,” Pope Francis said, before doubling down on the need for nations to work together, among other things, towards nuclear disarmament.
A global stability based on fear, he said, undermines relationships of trust and is not sustainable.
Before closing his remarks, Pope Francis said he hoped 2021 was the year in which “we finally write the words the Syrian conflict has ended,” prayed for peace in the Holy Land and stability in Lebanon.
Speaking about the consequences of the prolonged lockdown in many countries, he denounced an “educational catastrophe” and a limitation in freedom of worship.
“It must be recognized, however, that religion is a fundamental aspect of the human person and of society, and cannot be eliminated,” he said. “Even as we seek ways to protect human lives from the spread of the virus, we cannot view the spiritual and moral dimension of the human person as less important than physical health.”