VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis spent much of 2017 preaching and teaching about the need to value differences rather than fear them, and he adopted legislation that would allow more room for diversity within the Catholic Church.
In his frequent comments about migration and on most of his foreign trips, the pope also tried to convince political, civic and religious leaders that being welcoming, respecting differences and being willing to listen to another’s point of view and experience actually enrich a society.
From his trips to Egypt, where anti-Christian violence has sorely tried Christian-Muslim relations, to Colombia, which is recovering from a civil war, and most recently to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Pope Francis tried to convince people that peaceful coexistence and even unity do not require the erasing of all differences. In fact, during his trip to the two Asian nations, he defined as “ideological and cultural colonization” the political and social pressures to homogenize society.
“The unity we share and celebrate is born of diversity,” he told the bishops of Myanmar Nov. 29. “Never forget this — it is born of diversity! It values people’s differences as a source of mutual enrichment and growth. It invites people to come together in a culture of encounter and solidarity.”
Pope Francis gave legislative weight to that view in October when he created two new eparchies, or dioceses, for the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India and extended the boundaries of two others. In a letter to all of the country’s bishops, Latin- and Eastern-rite, he said the presence of two Catholic rites each with their own bishop in the same territory should not be seen as a sign of disunity, but of the richness of the one faith.
The other legislative decision that potentially could lead to greater diversity in the church was contained in Pope Francis’ document, “Magnum Principium” (“The Great Principle”). It included changes to the Code of Canon Law to give national bishops’ conferences greater responsibility in the process of translating liturgical texts into local languages. The document was published Sept. 9 and went into effect Oct. 1.
In a letter giving further explanation three weeks later, Pope Francis said that while in the past “the judgment regarding the fidelity to the Latin and the eventual corrections necessary was the task of the Congregation (for Divine Worship),” the new norms give “episcopal conferences the faculty of judging the worth and coherence of one or another term in translations from the original, even if in dialogue with the Holy See.”
Pope Francis also grabbed headlines late in the year for two statements indicating further developments in Catholic social teaching, specifically regarding the death penalty and nuclear deterrence.
Marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the Vatican Oct. 11, Pope Francis said the catechism’s discussion of the death penalty, already formally amended by St. John Paul II, needs to be even more explicitly against capital punishment.
The death penalty “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor,” the pope said.
Pope Francis’ remarks about nuclear deterrence came at a Vatican conference in early November. For decades, the popes had said the policy of nuclear deterrence could be morally acceptable as long as real work was underway on a complete ban of the weapons.
But at the conference, Pope Francis said that today with nuclear weapons, “the threat of their use as well as their very possession is to be firmly condemned.”
He later explained to journalists that the increased sophistication of the weapons means “you risk the destruction of humanity, or a great part of humanity.”
While Pope Francis used large public Masses, his early morning Mass homilies and his Wednesday general audience talks to reach thousands of Catholics with his message, 2017 gave him an opportunity for face-to-face meetings with many world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
He welcomed Trump to the Vatican May 24 for a visit described in the official statement as “cordial.” Common ground was found on the issues of protecting the unborn and defending religious freedom. But they also discussed their different positions on climate change and on the obligation to assist migrants and refugees.
Just a few days after he met the pope, Trump announced the U.S. was pulling out of the U.N. Paris agreement on climate change, an agreement the Vatican had urged him to uphold.
Just hours after Pope Francis appealed Dec. 6 for “wisdom and prudence” in protecting the status quo of Jerusalem, Trump publicly announced formal U.S. recognition of the city as Israel’s capital and a project to begin moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. The Holy See, like the overwhelming majority of nations, has said political control of the city must be determined by negotiation as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In addition, for decades the Vatican has urged a special status for the city to guarantee Jews, Muslims and Christians access to their faith’s holy sites.
Pope Francis also spent months urging the international community to ensure the new U.N. global compacts on migration and on refugees would support programs to help the poor stay in their countries rather than migrate and would open safe and legal immigration pathways for people fleeing extreme poverty and conflict.
Citing U.S. sovereignty, the Trump administration announced Dec. 3 that he was pulling the U.S. out of negotiations on the global compact on migration.
Unity in diversity and care for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society also were on Pope Francis mind in early June when he joined celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Catholic charismatic renewal.
Celebrating Pentecost with tens of thousands of Catholic charismatics from around the world and with dozens of Pentecostal and evangelical leaders, the pope said, “In a way both creative and unexpected,” the Holy Spirit “generates diversity, for in every age he causes new and varied charisms to blossom. Then he brings about unity: he joins together, gathers and restores harmony.”
Christians, he said, must be “united by the work of the Holy Spirit in prayer and in action on behalf of those who are weaker.”
“Walk together. Work together. Love each other,” Pope Francis told them.