Monday, November 25, 2019

In the Blast Zone: "No" To Nukes... "Hai" To "The Faith 'In Dialect'"

Over Francis' nearly eight years on Peter's Chair, a critical emphasis of his pontificate on the wider scale has been a concerted effort to burnish the Holy See's "soft power" – the degree to which the church's geopolitical emphases are heeded on the world stage not through economic nor military might, but as a moral arbiter with a standing able to convene disparate interests.

Of course, the push has notched some remarkable achievements, above all in facilitating the US' Obama-era opening to Cuba, and playing a key role in securing the global consensus that brought the 2015 approval of the Paris climate accords. Specifics aside, though, what the marked increase in papal advocacy has wrought is that, to a degree last seen at the zenith of John Paul II after the fall of Communism, when The Man in White speaks, the world's leaders pay attention.

Ever aware that diplomatic capital has its limits, and constrained by the Holy See’s status as a neutral entity in international law, while Francis & Co. have largely aimed their spotlight toward the general imperatives of the Gospel – welcoming migrants, seeking peace, defending the poor – this weekend brought a prominent shift from the usual, as Papa Bergoglio amplified the already-formidable heft of his office with the powerful optics of Ground Zero at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, using his stops at the sites of the nuclear annihilation of August 1945 to urge the worldwide abolition of atomic weapons.

As if the scene itself wasn't enough, Francis punctuated the moment even further by making his first-ever use of the prayer to be made "an instrument of your peace" often cited as being written by his patron (even if, in reality, it most likely wasn't).

Accompanied by another repetition of the pontiff's now-standard warning that, already, "a third World War is being waged piecemeal," Sunday's statements on nuclear war are but the culmination of the Holy See's increasing alarm, mostly expressed at lower levels over recent years amid developments on several fronts.

Yet more than the individual outbreaks of concern – whether sparked by the great powers or smaller states desiring a lane in the arms race – for the Vatican, the urgency of seeking a total nuclear ban is underpinned by the general sense the Pope underscored today: namely, that "we are witnessing an erosion of multilateralism" which, "made even more grave in the face of the development of new technologies for arms," threatens to diminish the reserve of state-level actors and erase the progress toward disarmament made over the last three decades.

Significant as the messaging is on the global stage, the Pope's call nonetheless had an even more loaded resonance for his hosts in their current context. Over the last year, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to pursue a controversial bulk-up of the nation's Self Defense Forces – a plan that would require a significant reversal of Japan's pacifist constitution, enacted after World War II, which explicitly "renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation" and stipulates that the country's "war potential" in terms of weaponry "will never be maintained."

As the memorial-sites of the nuclear blasts stand as the most powerful reminder of the consequences of Japan's last militarized age, a papal plea of "Never again!" at that very spot is about as close as you'll get to an on-site Vatican intervention in domestic politics.

The Pope was slated to have his customary bilateral meeting with Abe, followed by the usual speech to the civil authorities, as this piece was going to print.

(SVILUPPO: In his address to the nation's leaders, Francis reiterated his anti-nuclear call, but hinted again at the domestic tensions over the proposed defense expansion, saying that "History teaches us that conflicts and misunderstandings between peoples and nations can find valid solutions only through dialogue, the only weapon worthy of man and capable of ensuring lasting peace.")

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Meanwhile, as for the church's internal fallout from this weeklong trek – Francis' 32nd international tour – as noted at the outset of this Fall Cycle, the significance is bolstered by the timing... and the proof's been in the product.

Fresh off the emergence of inculturation as the dominant fault-line of the Amazon Synod, again, that the pontiff chose these very same weeks to visit the historic main "battleground" of efforts to integrate local cultures into the proclamation of the Gospel – an effort often met with Roman skepticism, or worse – was hardly an accident.

Accordingly, with his authoritative "last word" on the October event now pending – and a rebooted papal magisterium on "valid" inculturation set to be critical to the result – given the anticipation for the Synod's closing text, it is telling how no shortage of the last week's preaches and speeches offered an enthusiastic green-light to the Asian Church and its leaders to keep at "find[ing] ways to profess the faith 'in dialect,' like a mother who sings lullabies to her child.

"With that same intimacy," the Pope told Thailand's clergy and religious on Friday, "let us give faith a Thai face and flesh, which involves much more than making translations.

"It is about letting the Gospel be stripped of fine but foreign garb; to let it 'sing' with the native music of this land and inspire the hearts of our brothers and sisters with the same beauty that set our own hearts on fire."

While the point hardly needed doubling down, Francis did it anyway – "Let us not be afraid to continue inculturating the Gospel," he said, the Vatican marking the line in italics to stress his emphasis.

In the same vein, barely an hour after landing in Tokyo a day later, the visitor shared with the Japanese bishops his admiration of how, from its inception 400 years ago, "the mission in these lands was marked by a powerful search for inculturation and dialogue, which allowed the formation of new models, independent of those developed in Europe."

Noting the initial era's use of "literature, theatre, music and various types of instruments, for the most part in the Japanese language" as aids to evangelization – and, for its first century, to widespread effect in terms of conversions – the Pope termed that legacy "a sign of the love that those first missionaries felt for these lands."

Though Francis avoided engaging in the specifics of the recent open plea from Tokyo's recently-retired archbishop urging that Rome let the locals take the lead on how to integrate their culture into ecclesial life, in hindsight, he didn't have to – his phrasing did the trick.

And as a pontiff's words to local communities enter into the canon of his teaching for the universal church, it wouldn't be a surprise to see at least some of this week's salient passages resurface when the Apostolic Exhortation on the Amazon Synod rolls out, potentially as soon as next month.