Friday, September 18, 2015

Pope Francis Puts Up A Syrian Refugee Family: An Opportunity to Clean House

During wars, houses of worship have become temporary hospitals meeting very practical needs. Caring for the suffering is particularly close to the message and example that Jesus provided. In response to Pope Francis’s call for each parish in Europe to take in at least one refugee family amid the tremendous influx of mostly Syrian refugees in 2015, the pope himself arranged to take in a family. Leading by example is certainly fitting for a follower of Jesus. I submit that the pope could have gone even further to drive home the message of what it means to be a Christian.

The pope put up a Christian family from Damascus in a Vatican apartment.[1] Given the tens of thousands of mostly Syrian refugees pouring into the E.U. at the time, the impact of the pope’s move is of course symbolic in nature. Given the tremendous power that symbols can have, I submit that the pope missed an opportunity to realize the symbolic potential in Christian terms.

Firstly, putting up a Christian rather than a Muslim family misses the opportunity to stand up for a more marginalized people in Europe. Just as Jesus tended to ritually unclean people of his day rather than to people who could worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and more generally to social outcasts such as the poor and the sick, the pope could have taken in a Muslim family. The move would have been further out of his comfort zone, and thus even more Christian in terms of following Jesus’ preaching and example. Consider, for example, how Muslims in the Middle East would have thought of such a gesture. I submit that it would have been of much more importance than any official dialogue between Catholic and Islamic clerics.

Secondly, the pope could have housed the family in the papal apartment, while he continued to reside in a room in a relatively simple place for visiting priests. In the spiritual logic of the kingdom of God of which Jesus preached, the last are first and the first are last. Put another way, the kingdom upends societal logic. Putting a family in the papal apartment would have highlighted the status of the downtrodden and marginalized in the true Christian’s kingdom, as well as the servant quality of the pope and his subordinates. The gesture would dwarf that of the pope washing feet in the liturgy of Holy Thursday just before Easter.

Pope Francis washing the feet of men and women in a juvenile detention center on Holy Thursday in 2013. That he washed women's feet flustered some people in the Vatican who missed the main point of the ritual. 

Were the pope to have opened up the papal apartment to an “ordinary” family—Islamic no less!—surely a bureaucrat in the Vatican would have protested that the pope would be violating some rule or at least custom long held. To such a pedestrian mentality, the pope might conceivably have retorted, “Get behind me, Satan!” For anyone who puts a rule or custom ahead of a person following Christ cannot be reckoned as Christian. The pope would have sent the message in the Vatican that even its ensconced functionaries may not be Christian, after all—the matter of their creedal beliefs being nugatory in retrospect.

The first in human terms are bound to be reckoned as last, while most of the last are hopefully first in the eyes of God. To add greater certainty to the sentence would be impious for a mere mortal, and yet how many so-called religious people presume as much without even realizing the presumptuous that is implied. Were the pope to have opened up the regal apartment rather than one of many of the ordinary sort in the Vatican, a much larger project of house-cleaning might have ensued.

[1] Vincenzo Pinto, “Pope Francis Puts Up Syrian Refugee Family,” AFP, September 18, 2015.