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Vatican warns of indifference in face of expected global famine

Paddy Agnew

Francis has a message - but how many are listening to the solitary preacher in white, asks Paddy Agnew in Rome


Francis’s messages of the past two months, however, have not limited themselves to pastoral care, comfort and solidarity. Photo: AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO

Francis’s messages of the past two months, however, have not limited themselves to pastoral care, comfort and solidarity. Photo: AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO


Francis’s messages of the past two months, however, have not limited themselves to pastoral care, comfort and solidarity. Photo: AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO

One of the most haunting images of this past dramatic month in Rome has been that of a solitary Pope Francis praying in the pouring rain, in front of an empty St Peter's Square on a dark, cold night. Francis began his "extraordinary moment of prayer" by quoting the Gospel according to Mark: "When evening had come."

He went on to say that "for weeks now it has been evening". For the best part of two months, Pope Francis has focused on the tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic, expressing solidarity with victims, with their relatives and with the vast army of doctors, health workers and public workers worldwide who daily combat the virus.

As he prayed alone in the rain that night, his white robes shining brightly in the gathering gloom, one wanted to ask a difficult question: is the world out there listening? Maybe not all the world was listening but certainly somebody was. In Italy, for example, more than 17 million people tuned in to that prayer service, carried live on prime-time TV.

Francis's messages of the past two months, however, have not limited themselves to pastoral care, comfort and solidarity. Three days after his prayer in the rain, he had an unscheduled meeting with Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte. No details of that meeting were released, but it is safe to say that they discussed Conte's infamous "coronabond" request letter to his EU partners (a letter co-signed by eight other EU countries including Ireland) written a few days earlier.

Six days later during his Easter Sunday homily, Francis took up the cudgel again, chiding the EU for its failure to show solidarity during the pandemic. During Mass in Santa Marta last Wednesday, right on the eve of a potentially decisive EU summit, he was on message again, praying for Europe so that the old continent might find the "fraternal unity" of its "founding fathers".

Later last Wednesday, during his virtual general audience from the Pontifical Library on World Earth Day, he linked Covid-19 failings to mankind's failure "to care for the Earth, our garden-home", saying: "There is a Spanish saying that is very clear in this. It says: 'God forgives always; we men forgive sometimes; the Earth never forgives'... if we have despoiled the Earth, the response will be very bad."

In the spirit of his groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato si', he reiterated a constant messages of this pontificate, namely that "we can overcome global challenges only by showing solidarity with one another and embracing the most vulnerable in our midst".

As we tentatively prepare for phase two of the pandemic and for a "post-Covid-19" world, Francis clearly sees this as a key moment - one when mankind must take a holistic view of our plight. No one can reasonably address a mega global pandemic with huge socio-economic consequences, merely from a health perspective. Rather it must be seen in a socio-economic and ecological perspective.

To underline his concern about the pandemic, Pope Francis 10 days ago set up the Vatican's own Covid Task Force to co-ordinate the Church's response. Based in the Vatican's Integral Human Development "ministry" (formerly known as Justice and Peace), the task force is fronted by Argentine priest Augusto Zampini.

At Integral Development since 2016, Zampini is clearly on the same pages as his compatriot, Francis. For a start, he has worked in some of the poorest neighbourhoods of Francis's Buenos Aires. His was a late vocation which came after fours years working as an international lawyer.

Father Zampini met (virtually, of course) the press in Rome last week to explain the thinking behind the task force. Fresh-faced, smiling and insisting on speaking in English rather than the Italian normally used at the Holy See, he looked and sounded very different. His message, though, was familiar.

For a start, he pointed out that all the Holy See's best intelligence, from local Caritas groups to dioceses and arch-dioceses worldwide, raises the ugly spectre of famine in the post-Covid world, especially in the global south.

"This is really, really serious... People say we are all in the same boat but that's not true. We are facing the same storm, a terrible storm, gigantic waves - but we're not all in the same boat. Some of us are in a good boat that most probably won't sink; others are in tiny little boats and they are desperate, they are saying that maybe the next wave, we will all die..."

In parts of Africa, India and Latin America, will limited state health systems be able to cope? If and when a vaccine is found, will it be easily available in the global south or will it be restricted to the rich north? For its own good, he says, the rich north needs to be concerned about the global south, and needs to help it eradicate the killer virus.

"At the end of the day, we are all vulnerable and the best way of addressing vulnerability is to look after each other, especially the ones who are most vulnerable - not to leave them out, not to be indifferent, but rather to promote a culture of caring for both people and nature."

Welcoming the G20's decision last week to ease debt relief for the world's poorest countries in this time of pandemic, Fr Zampini observed that, in the end, "famine is not a problem about food, it is a problem about politics", adding: "This pandemic will change lots of things in the world, In a crisis like this there are winners and losers, there are always systemic changes. It is terrible to say, but this gives us an opportunity to revisit the type of society we want to have... perhaps less unfair, more sustainable, what the Pope calls a new universal solidarity."

That is the message but how many people are listening to the solitary preacher in white?

Sunday Independent