By FR. KEVIN M. CUSICK
Who would have thought that a 21st-century Pope would be accused of leading the charge of a new crusade? Not me. But that’s what has happened in the wake of U.S. air strikes on Iraq in defense of religious minorities at Mount Sinjar and in the effort to retake Mosul Dam.
Pope Francis undoubtedly felt himself backed into a diplomatic corner as a result of the stupendous ferocity of the ISIS attacks upon Christians and others in Iraq and elsewhere in the Levant, and this led to his support for limited defense of those persecuted. That this amounts to a call for a new crusade is rubbish, of course, as no Christians are enlisting at the moment to bear arms in a march to Jerusalem. That largely Christian nations must band together in this time of renewed atrocities against minorities is in support of justice first, and in matters of religion only incidentally.
Talk of a “crusade” on the part of radical Islam is simply code for a call to arms on the part of their pool of global sympathizers, and thus more of a religious crusade for them than for anyone else. The recurrence of a bloody Islamic crusade in our day is but one example of the increasing demands placed upon the holder of the office of Peter in an increasingly global Church.
In the latest of his series of airplane press conferences en route to Rome from Korea following the 6th Asian Youth Day, Pope Francis dropped a couple of surprises. He hinted that his health problems may dramatically shorten his life and thus alluded to the possibility that he may need to retire, as did his Predecessor.
News of the fact that he gives himself several years to live as a result of a nerve problem prepares the vast Catholic flock for a couple of things: first, that he may not die in office and second, that there may be a changing Catholic perspective on the papal office, which formerly did not admit of retirement.
The long reign of Pope St. John Paul II which ended by his death further habituated generations of Catholics to the long-held assumption that the Holy Father alone among leaders did not retire. Cardinals, bishops, and priests have always retired and increasingly are expected to, even when they ask to be continued, for reasons of age. Popes, however, have historically been seen as so wedded to the office of spiritual fatherhood for all the faithful that the spiritual benefits of dying in office were thought to outweigh the negative side effects of reduced decision-making ability or canceled public appearances.
Longer lifespans as a benefit of modern medicine and increasing demands upon the global leadership of the Pope in an increasingly interconnected world are changing this tradition. This, perhaps, could be for our spiritual good. If the Church is to be of service to the world, the man at the helm will need all the help he can get, beginning with his own gifts of intellect and spirit.
In addition to allowing for moral approbation of bearing arms in defense of the weak as he has done in the case of Iraq, the Pope is putting his money where his mouth is by appointing and sending Fernando Cardinal Filoni as his personal representative to Iraq. That is certainly the next best thing to being there himself and will draw needed attention to the immediate and long-term needs of Christians and religious minorities there.
Cardinal Filoni did not just drop in, make a symbolic house call, and then jet home as is so often the case with workaday diplomacy. He has spent time in Iraq visiting with religious leaders and ordinary folks to listen to them and learn of their needs, reporting back to the Holy Father and the world so that we can respond meaningfully.
He has joined the swelling chorus of voices reminding us that the religious minorities of Iraq, Syria, and other places need more than food and shelter because they are under deadly attack and not simply expelled from their homes and villages: They need military defense.
The Pope’s example has not been without effect, as Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has now joined the ranks of government leaders setting an example by traveling to Erbil, Iraq, as reported by Rudaw on Twitter. He has toured together with representatives of the Kurdish Regional Government to also better aid those in need.
While the prayers of many are answered we continue both our duty to pray for all in need and to actively assist the most at risk among us — above all, those whose lives are directly threatened. Here at home those may be unborn boys and girls, while in Iraq at this moment they certainly are those who share our faith.
Pope Francis is following his own call to seek the margins with his trip to Korea and he has remarked that he would go to China now, if he could. He has also stated that he is willing to go to northern Iraq if needed to help quell the systematic and diabolic persecution of Catholics and other Christians. Each of us can seek the margins with Christ wherever we live and thus bring more of the light and love of faith to others, missionaries in the here and now for the sake of life forever on high.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.
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(Follow Fr. Cusick on Facebook at Reverendo Padre-Kevin Michael Cusick and on Twitter @MCITLFrAphorism. Father blogs at APriestLife.blogspot.com and MCITL.blogspot.com. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)