By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published May 28, 2015
ATLANTA—At an interfaith forum in Atlanta, diplomats and academics joined religious leaders in assessing the extraordinary impact Pope Francis is having as an international statesman.
The pope is being given “the lion’s share of credit for pushing forward” the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, said Ambassador Charles Shapiro, president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.
His selections of new cardinals primarily from the developing world is reshaping the leadership of the Catholic Church, Shapiro said.
The council, which is affiliated with Georgia State University and the Robinson College of Business, planned the May 5 interfaith discussion. The briefing and discussion of “The Pope as International Statesman” was hosted by the Cathedral of Christ the King.
A diplomat who formerly served at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, Mark J. Powell of Morehouse College in Atlanta, said, “Every pope is a statesman. The two roles are inextricably linked.”
He noted that the Holy See is a “sovereign juridical entity under international law” and has diplomatic relations with 174 countries. All but three have embassies in Rome.
The Holy See also is a member of a “whole host of international bodies,” like the United Nations, and trains candidates from around the world in diplomatic service.
Even “opponents” of the Holy See are interested in what the Vatican has to say, Powell stated.
Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the environment “is eagerly anticipated,” he said.
“U.S.-Vatican relations are very strong,” he said.
At the same time, “the Vatican, rightfully in my view, guards its independence” from any and all international pressures. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t cooperate on matters.”
Improving relations between Cuba and the United States was a key topic of concern, he said.
When President Obama visited the Vatican and met with Pope Francis in March 2014, “Cuba was one of the topics they discussed,” Powell said.
Afterward, the pope wrote personally to President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, “basically urging them to seek rapprochement,” Powell said. “That was the pope as a statesman.”
Then “quiet diplomacy” began, Powell said. U.S. and Cuban senior advisors met in Canada to continue the discussion.
“Both presidents had opposition in their countries” to restoring relations, he said, and the pope’s encouragement prodded them to action.
Both Castro and Obama have publicly credited the pope with bringing about the normalization of relations between the two countries.
Other topics of mutual concern to the U.S. and the Holy See are conflict resolution, human rights, human trafficking, religious freedom and HIV/AIDS, Powell said.
Focus on poor, dialogue with others
In opening remarks, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory noted that the groundwork was laid by popes who preceded Pope Francis, but he is an essential leader in a world threatened by terrorism.
“The world has become fascinated with this man—now known to all the world as Francis,” he said.
His papacy “builds in many aspects on his predecessors. The work they did helped prepare the world for Pope Francis.”
Pope St. John XXIII, who was an experienced Vatican diplomat, wrote the encyclical “Peace on Earth” (“Pacem in Terris”) to a postwar world, raising up the reality that to avoid another war, countries had to undertake dialogue to pursue peace.
Pope Paul VI was the first pope to address the United Nations, “urging them to pursue the works of peace.”
Pope St. John Paul II “was uniquely prepared for the office he bore,” having lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Holocaust, and communist domination of Poland, and shaped by “important relationships” in his life, in particular, with Jewish friends.
In choosing to resign his office, the first pope to do so in 600 years, Pope Benedict XVI “made a unique contribution” to the subsequent election of the first pope from the Americas, Pope Francis, the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“He began immediately to change the face of the papacy,” Archbishop Gregory said.
After the Catholic Church had gone through “leadership ruptures involving bishops … who have made horrible mistakes, Francis has chosen to focus … on the poor.”
Pope Francis has set aside symbols of the office, wearing a simple white cassock.
Elected pope when the world is confronted by terrorism, he is equipped with a deep commitment to ecumenism—dialogue and cooperation among Christians—and interfaith relations—dialogue and common work by Catholics with non-Christian religions.
“Francis believes ecumenism and interreligious dialogues are indispensible antidotes to terrorism,” Archbishop Gregory said.
“Francis believes dialogue is the only way to safeguard our common future,” he said.
“In this respect, he may be the statesman most needed and most respected in the modern world. We hope and pray God will continue to use him to bring about a world that is more stable and more secure than the one he inherited when he stepped out on the loggia (of St. Peter’s Basilica) in 2013.”
First world leader to ‘reknit trust’ in institutions
Rabbi Scott E. Colbert, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta and adjunct professor of Jewish religious thought at Mercer University, reviewed the sequence of popes from St. John XXIII to Pope Francis. He said each pope who followed World War II “created a dynamic where for the first time in history, probably since Jesus was crucified, Jews and Christians are talking to one another in a meaningful way.”
Affirming the impact of the pope’s actions, Rabbi Colbert cited images from his trip to the Holy Land in 2014.
“Pope Francis as a statesman is addressing issues that are very complex indeed. When he went to visit the Holy Land, he took the time to visit both the Palestinians and Israel.”
In Palestine, Pope Francis communicated about the wall separating Israel and the West Bank, when on May 25, 2014, he made an unscheduled stop and prayed silently at a section of the controversial wall, built by Israel over Palestinian protests on West Bank land.
“Then he went to the Wailing Wall (the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem). I’m sure his prayer was for a just peace,” Rabbi Colbert said.
The pope’s close friends in Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and Omar Abboud, a Muslim leader, were part of the pope’s team during this trip to the Holy Land. He embraced them at the Western Wall.
He is communicating that walls need to be broken down, Rabbi Colbert said, and that he is “willing to have those conversations that will break down those walls.”
Ethicist Steven D. Olson said Pope Francis has an unprecedented ability to point people to what really matters, to “set the agenda and hold and draw people’s attention to what matters.”
Even his choice of the name “Francis,” particularly since his order is Jesuit, “has special significance,” Olson said. “I can’t think of a better name.”
“He has found a way, in his person, to continue to draw attention to things that matter most,” said Olson, co-founder of the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility at GSU. “It’s just an extraordinary use of resources.”
“I am struck by the incredible degree to which this pope has marshaled all these resources, to a degree politicians are stunned by.”
“He’s the first world leader who’s really found a way to reknit the trust we have in these institutions,” Olson said.
People “see this spirit in Francis—intense focus only on things that are in the center.”