Fifteen years after the September 11 attacks, and 10 years after Benedict XVI’s address at Regensburg, Pope Francis has adopted the consensus of the secular elite in relation to the threat of jihadist terror.
Fresh from a triumphant World Youth Day in Kraków where he both inspired and challenged more than a million young people, Pope Francis explained why he did not speak about the Islamic dimension of Islamist terror. It was a replay of his first foreign trip, to WYD in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, when that magnificent occasion was completely overwhelmed by the airborne unveiling, en route back to Rome, of the unofficial motto of the pontificate, “Who am I to judge?” – Francis’s updating of John Paul’s “Be not afraid.”
The question of Islamic jihadism pressed itself upon WYD Kraków with the murder in France, on the opening day, of Fr Jacques Hamel at the altar of his parish church during Holy Mass. How would the Vatican handle it in Kraków? There have been, it is fair to say, confusing messages on that front. In July 2015 in Bolivia, Pope Francis, emphasising the gravity of the word, insisted on speaking of a “genocide” against Christians unfolding the Middle East. More recently, in June, Pope Francis forcefully denounced the use of the term “genocide”, saying it reduced to political or sociological categories the spiritual reality of martyrdom.
Fr Hamel was clearly a martyr. Pope Francis was in Kraków, in the cathedral of which he began his visit by venerating the relics of St Stanislaus, the 11th-century bishop martyred while celebrating Mass. (In Vilnius, which shares a long and complicated history with Poland, the painting over the main altar in the cathedral depicts the king wielding the sword while Stanislaus elevates the Host.) So it would seem rather straightforward to speak of Fr Hamel in light of St Stanislaus, as an indication that martyrdom is the ultimate profile of Christian witness.
Yet that would mean speaking of Fr Hamel’s killers as motivated by the same hatred of the faith that motivated the killers of Stanislaus, Thomas Becket, John Fisher and Oscar Romero. And because the killers were ISIS-inspired, that simply was not going to happen. The nothing-about-Islamic-persecution-of-Christians line had been decided long in advance of Fr Hamel’s murder, for the Saturday WYD vigil included the testimony of a young Syrian woman. She gave a heart-rending account of a life destroyed by war, with nary a mention of the causes of the war or the particular plight of Christians in the ISIS-controlled territories. The testimonies are edited by the Vatican in advance, as the Pope’s official remarks respond to them.
Yet something had to be said when even the French president declared that this attack on the Catholic Church was an attack on France as a whole. Pope Francis spoke on the plane to Kraków about how Fr Hamel was one of many Christians to be killed in this “piecemeal world war”. Immediately advised by Fr Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica and the Holy Father’s de facto spokesman, that that could be interpreted as if Islam was waging war on Christianity, the Holy Father circled back to the journalists to take another crack at it, insisting that wars are never caused by religion.
That seemed to do the trick for the plane, but on the ground in Kraków the pilgrims were talking about it, the journalists were still asking about it, the bishops from around the world were incorporating the martyrdom of Fr Hamel into their catechetical talks. Why did the Holy Father not say something, given that two of the patrons held up as models for WYD were the martyrs St Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko?
A hasty solution was adopted, with Pope Francis adding an unscheduled visit to venerate the relics of two recently beatified Polish missionaries, Franciscan friars killed by the Marxist Shining Path guerillas in 1991 in Peru. There the Holy Father offered a prayer for deliverance from the “devastating wave of terrorism” without further specification. There was though a hint of where the Holy Father was heading in the part of the prayer for the “families of the victims of terrorism”, asking that they might find the “courage to continue to be brothers and sisters for others, above all for immigrants.” The pivot from terror to immigration indicated the Holy Father’s frustration that the summer of Islamist terror is dampening popular enthusiasm for greater settlement of Muslim refugees in Europe.
Finally, on the flight home, Pope Francis made clear his current thinking, that there is no such phenomenon as Islamist violence, any more than domestic violence in Italy constitutes “Catholic violence”. Going further still, he acknowledged that “there are violent persons of [Islam]… this is true: I believe that in pretty much every religion there is always a small group of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists. We have them.”
It was not clear whether Pope Francis was speaking historically or contemporaneously, but if the latter, there is no evidence of violent Catholic fundamentalists at work anywhere in the world. That the head of the Catholic Church would suggest such is simply remarkable.
Remarkable too, though, was that the airborne remarks, while covered in the Catholic press, were relegated to very secondary coverage in the secular press. Perhaps the novelty of the Holy Father’s airborne press conferences is wearing off.
Which may be for the best. Better not to leave the final word from Kraków, a millennium-old city of hundreds of martyrs, by ignoring their contemporary companions.