Pope Francis’ most recent airborne news conference, held coming back from Manila on Monday, was another sensation. It generated a couple of instant classic sound-bites, including why Catholics don’t have to “breed like rabbits” and his wish to kick a couple of corrupt bureaucrats “where the sun doesn’t shine.”
There were two other tidbits, however, that have been somewhat lost in the shuffle, both of which are important for understanding what is more and more a defining trait of this pope--his sense of urgency.
One of those nuggets is about a book; the other, a trip.
As he has before, Francis invoked an apocalyptic 1907 novel by an English convert from Anglicanism called “Lord of the World.” The novel lays out a dystopic vision of a final conflict between secular humanism and Catholicism, with the showdown taking place on the fields of Armageddon.
Author Robert Hugh Benson depicts a world in which Marxism and secularism have run the table, culminating in a charismatic “savior” figure, increasingly recognizable as the Anti-Christ, who arises to lead a one-world government. Attacks on Christian symbols and believers mount, and euthanasia is widely practiced.
Some find the novel prescient, others a little ‘out there.’ For analytical purposes, the important thing is its keen sense that the world is reaching a turning point and there’s not much time left to set things right.
That’s not to say Francis believes doomsday is around the corner. However, his fondness for the novel seems to track with his belief that humanity is making some definitive choices today, from the economy to the environment, and that if we get those choices wrong, the consequences may be far worse than we realize.
All of which brings us to a second striking bit from Monday’s news conference, which was Francis’ overview of his pending travel schedule.
Aside from his September visit to the United States, Francis said he also plans to visit three Latin American nations this year--Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay--and three more next year, including Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, with Peru probably being slotted in to one of those trips as well.
The pontiff also said he intends to visit two African nations toward the end of 2015, saying they’ll likely be Uganda and the Central African Republic.
That’s an ambitious set of plans, with his intention to go to the Central African Republic standing out as especially audacious.
The country is still an active war zone, with the conflict to some extent breaking down along Muslim/Christian lines. Because of the violence, the Central African Republic is currently under a United Nations Security Council ban on travel, which was recently extended through the end of January 2016.
Francis technically wouldn’t be in violation should he arrive in November or December, as he hinted, since the ban contains an exemption for “religious obligation.” One still has to wonder, however, why the pontiff wouldn’t prefer to wait for the shooting to stop.
As in the Philippines last week, when the pope was scheduled to fly into the teeth of a tropical storm in order to visit the survivors of a 2013 super-typhoon, one imagines that aides and security personnel will try to persuade Francis to rethink the outing.
Based on his insistence last week on going ahead anyway, Francis may not be in the mood to wait around.
Since his election two years ago, Francis has launched a whirlwind of initiatives--from Vatican reform to blockbuster documents, from bold diplomatic initiatives to spontaneous meetings and gestures. It sometimes seems as if he’s trying to cram activity that would last most papacies a decade into his first two years, raising the question of why he’s in such a hurry.
Given his repeated references to “Lord of the World,” his rush may not be related only to a hunch that at 78 he’s got limited time, or his knowledge that he was elected on a reform mandate.
Shortly before his retirement last November, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said in a Crux interview that he’d like to ask Francis about his “eschatological vision that the anti-Christ is with us,” and whether that explains the pope’s intense pace.
(In Catholic theology, “eschatology” is the study of the end stages of human life and history, featuring what are sometimes referred to tongue-in-cheek as the “final four”--death, judgment, heaven, and hell.)
“Nobody seems interested in that, but I find it fascinating,” George said. “I hope before I die I’ll have the chance to ask [Francis] how you understand your ministry, when you put the end-times before us as a key.”
In effect, Francis may already have answered George’s question.
Monday’s comment about “Lord of the World” suggest his reply might boil down to: “Yes, Virginia, there’s a devil, an anti-Christ, and an end time … and if we want to avoid the worst of it, we’d better get cracking.”