One off-the-cuff remark could now overshadow the Pope’s entire Africa trip

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Pope's comment on American attacks got the press corps talking. It wouldn't be the first time this has happened, either

As far as book plugs go, the one the Rome correspondent for La Croix Nicolas Senèze got from Pope Francis for his book, Comment L’Amérique veut changer de Pape (released yesterday), really can’t be beaten.

“This is a bomb,” Francis told the journalist aboard the plane bound for Mozambique, as he handed the volume he’d just received from the author to one of his body men. Francis did also say he hadn’t read it — yet — but that hardly matters. I hope the book does very well.

The headline-grabbing part of Senèze’s exchange with Pope Francis, however, was another.

A central thesis of Senèze’s book, is that there is a small, but very vocal and well-funded minority within the Catholic Church in the United States, which is highly organised and actively pursuing what are essentially twin goals: Francis’s resignation, and a successor more sympathetic to their ecclesiological, moral, and political vision. “For me,” Pope Francis said to Senèze, “it is an honour if the Americans attack me.”

Well, then.

The Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Matteo Bruni, quickly offered a clarification of the Pope’s remark. “In an informal context,” Bruni said, “the Pope wanted to say that he always considers criticisms an honour, particularly when they come from authoritative thinkers and, in this case, [thinkers] of an important nation.” That was some first-class crisis management, right there, especially for a fellow who has spent most of his career in the back of the house, working as a technical hand. Kudos.

However, it may not be enough. And if the off-the-cuff remark Pope Francis gave to a book-hawking journalist does come to overshadow the trip, it would be most disappointing.

The three nations Pope Francis will be visiting during his trip — Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius — under the threefold sign of “Hope, Peace, and Reconciliation,” constitute a microcosm of Africa’s promise, as well as the challenges facing the whole continent and its peoples.

On the one hand, the multicultural, multi-ethnic, and religiously plural societies offer examples of vibrant and creative co-existence, in which Catholic faith has challenged and transformed culture, and Catholic citizens have contributed to the upbuilding of social life. On the other, the devastating effects of unstable climate, war, and the crushing poverty that results from a toxic combination of international exploitation and local corruption are all amply on display.

It would not, however, be the first time an off-the-cuff remark has overshadowed a trip. When Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Cameroon and Angola in 2009, he answered questions from journalists on the outbound flight from Rome to Yaoundé, including one regarding the Church’s stance on the use of condoms in the fight to staunch the spread of HIV/AIDS. “[T]he problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics,” Pope Benedict said. “On the contrary, they increase it.” 

Pope Benedict said lots of other things in his answer to the question from Philippe Visseyrias for France 2. It didn’t matter. At that point, there was no way the coverage was going to center on the Instrumentum laboris for the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa, or anything else except Benedict’s remark.

It will be interesting to see, this time around, whether journalists on the return flight next Tuesday, September 10th, press Pope Francis for clarification. It will be more interesting to see whether Francis really answers their questions, whatever they are. Francis has made a point of keeping his in-flight exchanges with journalists on point. He likes to answer questions related to his visits. Several times, he has postponed answers to off-topic queries, and his record of returning to them is spotty.

One understands his desire to stay focused on the trip, but the fact is that journalists very rarely get to ask him anything at all. There’s a lot going on in the Church, and many outstanding questions regarding his governance, answers to which journalists and the public they serve frankly have a right.