|Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives in Bosnia |
and Herzegovina for a Mass in 2015. (Time.com)
[Source: TIME]- From Cuba to climate change, he has revitalized the Vatican’s role in global diplomacy. Now he’s bringing his activist agenda to the U.S.
History sometimes turns on little things– a single bullet, a spy’s blurry photograph–and on Aug. 25, 2014, Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana arrived at the White House to deliver one such object. Ortega had gone to great lengths to cover his tracks. His name does not appear in official White House visitor logs, and he had even arranged an event at Georgetown University that day to explain his presence in the capital. When he arrived at the West Wing he was quickly shown to a secluded patio outside the Oval Office, where President Barack Obama, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and two other top aides greeted him.
After dispensing with the formalities, the Cardinal took out a letter from Pope Francis to Obama. Ortega informed the Americans that he had delivered the same message days earlier in person to Cuban President Raúl Castro. And then Ortega began to read the Pope’s words out loud. Francis expressed his support for diplomatic talks the U.S. and Cuba had secretly been pursuing in an effort to end a half-century of hostility. He encouraged the two nations to resolve the issue of prisoners, a key sticking point in negotiations. And he offered the Vatican’s assistance to help the two countries overcome their decades of distrust and confrontation.
Francis’ letter was as simple as that, but it made a difference. Two months later, Obama and Castro took Francis up on his offer, dispatching top officials to the privacy of the Vatican for a five-hour session in which they hammered out the details of an agreement to restore full diplomatic relations. And when Obama and Castro sealed the historic deal by telephone on Dec. 16, 2014, they found common ground expressing their gratitude to the Pope. Most important, the Pope’s letter offered symbolic shelter for both sides as they weighed the political costs of reconciliation. Francis’ popularity as a religious figure in the U.S. gave Obama cover as he cut a deal with godless communists across the Straits of Florida, while the Pope’s credibility as a Latin American shielded Castro as he got in bed with Yankee capitalists. “[The Cubans] were very clear with us that they saw Pope Francis as different from previous Popes,” says Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who was present at the meeting with Ortega and the talks in Rome, “because of his stature as the first Pope from Latin America.”
That difference will be on full display when Francis arrives in Cuba on Sept. 19, ahead of a five-day historic visit to the U.S., and it is key to understanding not just who he is but how he is leading the Vatican on the world stage 30 months into his reign. Francis, 78, rose to prominence as a church leader in the unruly world of Latin American politics of the 1960s and 1970s, and his life and outlook are the products of the developing world. He has never been to the U.S., and his only papal trip to a developed Western country so far was a four-hour stopover in France, the shortest ever by a Pope. Instead he has focused on his spiritual base, traveling almost exclusively to so-called Global South nations, including Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bolivia and Brazil.
That perspective has infused Vatican diplomacy under Francis with the same paradoxical mix of humility and influence that have defined his papacy so far. Nearly a year after Ortega’s visit, Francis shrugged off his role in the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, even as he credited divine inspiration for his own part in the talks’ successful outcome. “What could I do with these two who have been going on like this for more than 50 years?” he asked reporters on a return flight from Paraguay to Rome in July. “Then the Lord made me think of a Cardinal, and he went there and talked,” Francis said. “We did hardly anything, only small things.”
But Francis’ small things are proving to be a big deal for the rest of the world. Coaxing U.S.-Cuban reconciliation is just the start: the Pope is making the Holy See a player in the most pressing global issues in a way unseen since the early days of Pope John Paul II. From the outset of his papacy he has drawn attention to the Mediterranean migrant crisis, and in early September he called on Catholic dioceses, including parishes in the Vatican, to house refugee families. Francis routinely speaks out about the persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq as he pushes for action to end the wars there. He praised the controversial nuclear deal between Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers. His 180-page encyclical on the environment has been called “radical” by one prominent environmentalist and has helped make Francis a perceived front runner for the Nobel Peace Prize. And the State Department has asked the Vatican for help on relocating prisoners from the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, so that it can be closed, a top Obama priority, senior Administration officials tell TIME. Secretary of State John Kerry “early on saw Francis as a potentially activist foreign policy Pope,” says one senior State official.