Pope Francis may not write with the precision of his two predecessors, but his symbolic acts expressing solidarity and clippie sound bites call people to an account of conscience on what he regards as the serious moral challenges of our time.
The Vatican Christmas tree for this year will express two issues dear to his heart; the environment and refugees. The tree itself will be replaced in the forest with 40 saplings and decorated with ceramic drawings done by children.
It will also feature a replica of a luzzu, a Maltese boat, representing not only fishing and life, but the reality of the makeshift crafts that refugees set out in to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
In the face of a world where many countries remain oblivious to the destruction of the natural world, as well as refusing help to people seeking refuge in the name of protecting their own prosperity, Pope Francis’ message of mercy faces huge challenges.
Vatican journalist, Roberto de Mattei, recently described him as the last point of reference for the international left, singling out his challenges on climate change and refugees.
Church opinion on these two issues has evolved slowly over decades. Climate change had received little more than passing reference prior to the coming of Pope Francis, but emigration has a long history.
In 1952, Pius XII insisted on a right to emigrate in particular circumstances and, although all popes since that time have defended the existence of national borders, despite their continued insistence on universal brotherhood and movement of goods, it is only in recent years that they have drawn attention to the responsibility of countries to look kindly through their borders at people seeking asylum from persecution.
But if Pope Francis is one of the few remaining world leaders preaching this message, it is likely that he has given more thought to its moral complexities than most journalists or heads of state.
However, he is fighting an elusive enemy hidden within the modern secular state; the belief that religious values are based on faith alone and not reason.
Pope Benedict XVI told members of the parliament in Germany that historically, most legal codes have been based on religious tenets, but Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to society, rather one derived from observation and study of the nature of God’s created reality.
Pope Francis told the European Parliament that Europe must be capable of describing its own cultural identity clearly if it is ever going to be able to protect both its own citizens and ensure it can welcome outsiders.
He notes that otherwise it runs the risk of making piecemeal responses, which only promote slave labour and social tension. In this context he has addressed the reality of today’s mass labour movement as well.
Pope Francis may well provoke unrest in many quarters and many may exclude his views from the debate in the public square by dismissing him as a lunatic religious fanatic, but a discussion on any moral issue that does not include the voice of religion runs the risk of becoming less caring of its weaker members and harsh towards outsiders.
The Church may often be wrong, but this year’s Christmas tree carries the message that society can be richer for its contribution. JiM