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Meeting Pope Francis


41 years a Jesuit, I had never met a pope.

Back in 1986, I was adviser to the Australian Catholic Bishops on Aboriginal land rights. Pope John Paul II came to Alice Springs, met with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and spoke strongly about the rights of Aborigines to retain title to their traditional lands.

Frank Brennan presents Pope Francis with a bottle of Sevenhill wineNext day, a bishop told me the amusing story that the Pope had arrived at Alice Springs airport where he had mistaken Wagga's Bishop William Brennan for me. Bishop Brennan was very gracious about the matter when we embraced during the sign of peace at mass.

Some years later I did some work for the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace in Rome. After one meeting, the President Cardinal Roger Etchegaray invited me to stay in Rome and to concelebrate mass with the Holy Father at a major event in St Peter's Square the following Sunday.

I did not see any reason to change my Saturday flight. As I sat on the floor to celebrate mass with the staff of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Bangkok that Sunday morning, I told them that I knew where I would prefer to be.

On arrival in Rome two weeks ago to prepare for the Global Foundation's roundtable on 'Rejecting the "globalisation of indifference": mobilising for a more inclusive and sustainable global economy', the Australian Ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy QC, asked if I would like to meet the Pope. Without the slightest hesitation, I said I would.

The ambassador organised a ticket for me to attend the regular Wednesday papal audience with thousands of other pilgrims. But he assured me I would be in the front row with a good chance of meeting my Jesuit colleague with the name 'Francis'.

The audience was due to commence at 10am. I arrived about 20 minutes early. The Pope was already working the room, moving through the crowd towards his white upholstered throne. By 9.45am, he was ensconced, painstakingly reading his initial catechesis for the Year of Mercy. He finished his delivery by 10.05am. I spared a thought for the pilgrims who were arriving just on time. Then followed half an hour of monsignori reading translations of the Pope's remarks in various languages.

By 10.45 the Pope had greeted the bishops and monsignori on stage who had gathered for their photo opportunities. Francis started descending the stairs and I thought the event rather underwhelming.

But Francis did not beat any prompt exit. He spent the next 45 minutes greeting every individual in the bay immediately in front of me.

There were about 200 people there. As far as I could judge, you had to be confined to a wheelchair, a child with a life threatening illness, or a carer to be eligible for admission to that privileged space. I was completely overcome. Here was a pope living out everything he says, and doing it right under my nose.

He has often delighted in quoting Francis of Assisi, 'Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words!' The words had been spoken from the throne; now he was in real preaching mode with the people, especially the poor and the suffering.

Mothers wept as they embraced him. Kids played games and offered him gifts. People in wheelchairs extended every limb they could to reach him. He was totally present to each of them, oblivious of the cameras and mobile phones except when kids asked him to pose for a selfie.

He then turned to the 'front row' where I had been placed. Most of the people in this row were newly married couples. On my right was a young English couple who'd arrived in Rome without realising they needed a wedding garment for the day. They bought a set of white and black T shirts — one saying 'Just Married' and the other 'Your blessings please'. Francis was only too happy to offer them his blessing.

On my left was a young Latin American couple dressed to the nines, the bride looking resplendent in her wedding dress and the groom dignified in his tuxedo.

I was there in my uncharacteristic clerical collar which I had purchased at Boston College a year ago when the rector had told me that it was advisable to wear clerical dress occasionally on campus. I later wrote to the rector telling him that I had finally found a use for the shirt.

As Francis approached, I offered him a bottle of Sevenhill Inigo Shiraz wine with the simple observation: 'vino Australiano Gesuita'. He beamed his response: 'acqua sacra'. Moving on to the next couple, he turned back, smiled very warmly, and said, 'Thank you'. I came away delighted to have met a pope.


The Global Foundation's Roman roundtable

I then settled down to prepare for the roundtable which brought together the most senior officers in the Vatican (Cardinals Parolin and Pell and Archbishop Paul Gallagher) with leaders of international agencies and organisations including Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Bertrand Badre, managing director and CFO of the World Bank, Dominic Barton, managing director of McKinsey & Company, and Baroness Scotland, the new secretary-general of the Commonwealth.

Over two days, we met at Villa Magistrale, the headquarters of the Sovereign Order of Malta on the Aventine Hill overlooking Rome and the Vatican. We discussed what was needed for the world economy to be more sustainable and inclusive.

Corporate CEOs like Dennis Bracy from US-China Clean Energy Forum, Mark Cutifani from Anglo-American, Rod Leaver from Lend Lease Asia, and Robert Thomson from News Corp kept us grounded and focused on the needs and challenges of business.

To date, we have worked on the presumption that the global economy can be rendered more inclusive only if it is growing. We need to confront this presumption. It may be correct. But then again some, including Pope Francis, have asserted the contrary.

To date, we have worked on the presumption that the global economy will be sustainable regardless of the situation of the planet. Now we need to confront this presumption. Some, including Pope Francis, have asserted that the global economy will be sustainable in the long term only if we confront and reverse the effects of climate change, the loss of biodiversity and water shortages.

Even climate sceptics need to concede that human activity has contributed to global warming regardless of the natural cycle of climate change, and that contribution has exacerbated the adverse impact of climate change on the planet. Action to mitigate the human effects on climate change is not only prudential; it is a moral imperative.

Where Francis starts to get into trouble with some from the west or from the north (depending on your geopolitical perspective) is in his questioning the myth of unlimited progress.

In Laudato Si', he says: 'If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.'

He is clearly at odds with those who assert that the key to the future is simply growing the pie so the poor can get more while the rich need not get less than what they already have, and that growing the pie is as good a way as any ultimately to save the planet.

Francis doesn't buy this status quo position. He thinks there is a need to limit the size of the pie, for the good of the planet, and there is a need to redistribute the pie so that the poor get their equitable share.

The differences over these two presumptions presented us with a major challenge and a significant barrier to our working collaboratively towards a more inclusive and sustainable global economy.

Hailing from Argentina, Francis puts his trust neither in ideological Communism nor in unbridled capitalism. Like his predecessors Benedict and John Paul II he is unapologetic, asserting that 'by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion'.

He has not known a regulated market that works well. He has not known a polity in which all including the rulers are under the rule of law. He questions any economic or political proposal from the perspective of the poor, and he is naturally suspicious of any economic or political solution which is likely to disadvantage the poor.

What for him may be a failure of the market might be seen by some of us who are used to well regulated markets in societies subject to the rule of law as a failure caused by market abuses which might be readily corrected by the application of right economic and political strategies.

Markets cannot be well regulated while many societies experience the absence of peace, the absence of the rule of law, the lack of coherence between values and the national interest of the nation state, and unbridgeable inequality.

We need to enhance international security, building the rule of law within multilateral organisations, and fostering the climate for investment sensitive to the triple bottom line — economic, social and environmental.

I return from Rome grateful that we have a pope prepared to open these questions, accompanied by senior prelates happy to mix it with business and community leaders seeking the common good of the planet and especially the good of the poor.

His words have provoked interest at the highest level in economic and political circles. His actions have inspired even the most cynical and reserved Vatican watchers.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University and a member of the Advisory Council of the Global Foundation which organised the Roman roundtable.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

Science could shut down the denier machine instantly. It's been 35 years of debate and climate action delay to save the planet so why won't science agree a global climate crisis is as real as they already agree smoking causes cancer, instead of agreeing it's "99% real"? Science can end this costly debate. Otherwise only another 35 years of global disbelief is certain and unstoppable.

mememine69 | 22 January 2016  

Australian acqua sacra for the Pope, and a delightful exchange of words. A memory to treasure. It's always pretty neat to meet and greet someone we admire. The Church should speak out about economic matters, especially from the viewpoint of the poor. Governments keep their eyes on how they are polling, rather than making a difference while they are in power. Salut.

Pam | 23 January 2016  

Thanks for this account of your discussions Frank. But I'm on the Pope's side in this: "What for him may be a failure of the market might be seen by some of us who are used to well regulated markets in societies subject to the rule of law as a failure caused by market abuses which might be readily corrected by the application of right economic and political strategies." As the GFC demonstrated, "the market" wasn't properly regulated and it still isn't. It can all happen again because the lessons weren't learnt and the proper extension of the rule of law to cover contingencies and excesses has never been extended. And, of course, no one who created the mess was ever tried and convicted.

Michael Kelly | 23 January 2016  

In 40 years as a priest I have encountered 2 popes. Pope John Paul waved [winked?] at me standing alone at secret exit gate at Randwick Racecourse[,[bypassing security] in 1986; Pope Benedict visited us at Little Sisters of the Poor Villa for retired priests.[2008] I am an unflinching papist on all doctrines and disciplines of magisterium-roman collar or rehab pyjamas

Father John George | 23 January 2016  

Fr Frank, What is an "uncharacteristic clerical collar"? From the photo above I thought it rather suited you! So too does today's article.

john frawley | 25 January 2016  

Oh, dear. I thought we would have started the new years on a more progressive note - but here goes. Thhe so-called "Roman" or clerical collar, according to Wikipaedia: ",,,the clerical collar was invented by the Rev. Donald Mcleod, a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) minister in Glasgow. By 1840, Anglican clergy developed a sense of separation between themselves and the secular world." So it might be a great sign of ecumenical confraternity with Protestants, maybe not so much a sign of solidarity with us mere plebs!

AURELIUS | 25 January 2016  

1. "Even climate sceptics need to concede that human activity has ... exacerbated the adverse impact of climate change on the planet." This doesn't make sense. It's a bit like saying, "Even atheists need to concede that Jesus Christ is God." By definition, a climate sceptic is someone who disputes the thesis that human activity has led to damaging global warming. If a supposed sceptic were to concede this thesis they would thereby signal they were not, in fact, a sceptic. 2. "Action to mitigate the human effects on climate change is not only prudential; it is a moral imperative." It's not, if you're a sceptic. As a sceptic, I see that my moral imperative is (a.) to point out the gaping holes in the current warming "orthodoxy" - the unexplained >18-year satellite-documented "pause" in surface temperatures despite massive concurrent increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases, the abject failure of most climate models to replicate the surface temperature record since 1990, the lack of any increase in extreme weather events such as cyclones and droughts since 1950 (IPCC AR5 WG1 SPM, p.5), the failure to find the predicted "hot spot" in the troposphere, and so on. (b.) to point out the benefits of the global warming that has since the 1850s been gently moving us out of the Little Ice Age, alongside the boost to the global ecosystem afforded by increased atmospheric CO2 itself, which has led to an identified greening of the planet since 1950.

HH | 25 January 2016  

Frank , your first sentence is then left hanging at a time when Aboriginal land rights and control in Australia are being dismantled and grossly undermined. Re the NT please do consider e.g Ian Viner AO QC 's article which begins: "WITH the Commonwealth Government’s push for 99-year leases, the Forrest Report call for Aboriginal land to be privatised so as to be bought and sold, and attacks upon the Northern Land Council in particular over their defence of traditional ownership and their responsibilities under the Land Rights Act, the iconic 1976 Land Rights Act is under threat like never before. The whole framework and security of traditional Aboriginal land, protected by the Land Rights Act, is in danger of being subverted by Governments, bureaucracies and people who have no real understanding or sympathy for traditional communal landownership. " More at at http://www.concernedaustralians.com.au/media/Ian_Viner_Plan_to_undermine_Land_Rights_Act.pdf Under neo-liberal bipartisan polices Aboriginal lands are heavily sort after from mining & other corporate-national and international interests. Consecutive Governments still pushing ahead with FAILING Intervention policies (Federal and Territory) which have striped control from the people. They are calling for OUR support and for land & other rights long denied e.g. "The people of Arnhem Land need a treaty as soon as possible to protect their rights to live the life God meant for them. This is only possible with a treaty that recognises inalienable tribal land ownership and the Ma?ayin system of law. http://www.yolngunations.org/

Georgina | 25 January 2016  

News Corp has just withdrawn its papers from free online access to them via the State Library of Victoria (if a member) in another show of self-interest. Why is News Corp being represented at the Vatican Roundtable? If economic, social and environmental concerns are the focus of this discussion then where does media power fit into/above/below/around the dialogue? I also endorse Michael Kelly's commentary ...

mary tehan | 25 January 2016  

Fantastic picture. You both look so full of joy. If you are going to meet a Pope then this has to be "the one", even if it has taken 41 years. I hope he gets time to enjoy your gift of a fine drop of Aussie shiraz.

Christina Coombe | 25 January 2016  

HH, I would classify you as a climate change denier rather than a sceptic. A sceptic concedes the possibility but says the scientific evidence is not conclusive. A sceptic needs to act prudentially and morally in light of the possible contingencies.

Frank Brennan SJ | 25 January 2016  

Mary (tehan), given that the laws of the univere (science AND religion) generally require the existence of opposing positive and negative forces, I suggest the inclusion of News Corp at the Vatican Roundtable is an attempt to be inclusive in the broadest of senses. I wouldn' t like to be presumpuous enough to suggest if News Corp represents the views of angels or demons, however.

AURELIUS | 25 January 2016  

Inote above a glitzy advert for "Spotlight" movie that canonises the Boston Globe. I offer here an expose of the above:http://www.themediareport.com/2015/11/30/spotlight-movie-review/

Father John George | 26 January 2016  

Thank you Fr Frank for your description of audience with Pope Francis. Our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Hendra Parish group led by Fr Paul Chackanikunnel culminated in the blest experience of the audience with the Pope which you describe so well. For lay people to have had this opportunity after long years of mission in families, work places, and communities has been life changing for us and for our loved ones - the scriptures jump off the pages for us to absorb and share with so much enthusiasm. Thanks Fr Frank for reminding us of wonder of seeing our Pope in action. Aileen Williams

Aileen Williams | 26 January 2016  

The Swedish/Nordic word "lagom" lends itself to the saying "enough is as good as a feast"and that is one of the main points that Pope Francis and all those who seek a genuine capacity for sustainability in the world, are advocating. Market economies rely on growth per se as the key indicator of development, progress and more - all measured by material/economic standards which have little to do with fellowship, sharing, sacrifice, relationship and true equality. Why is it so hard to comprehend this? Or are we so immunised by the culture of unlimited self-centredness?

Charmaine C | 27 January 2016  

Well said, Frank, in your reply to HH. HH has expressed black and white views on a number of subjects including climate change and capitalism. But isn't that one of the hazards of religious teaching, especially of the young, in that it encourages the black/white, true/false, right/wrong, believe/deny approach to religious knowledge and, by extension, secular knowledge. The longer the creed, or the list of commandments, the less scope for honest doubt, or openly-expressed scepticism. I'm reminded again of the message given to the puritans departing for the New World - 'The Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth from his world'

Ginger Meggs | 27 January 2016  

Sceptics come in more than 50 shades of grey, Fr F.; from those who regard the global warming orthodoxy as slightly improbable to those who think it extremely unlikely. I think the evidence for dangerous man-made global warming is extremely unlikely at this stage, but not down-right impossible. (Ten years of reliable temperature data approaching the average IPCC model projections would cause me to rethink. Hasn’t happened yet.) So I guess I’m a sceptic – though to be honest I couldn’t care less what un-pc pigeon hole I’m assigned to. Moreover, as a sceptic/denier (whatever) I prudently inspect the proffered remedies for the (in my assessment) remotely possible dangerous global warming, and find them not only pathetically trivial in effect re. CO2 reduction and consequent prevention of warming, (cf Tim Flannery: ”If the world as a whole cut all emissions tomorrow, the average temperature of the planet’s not going to drop for several hundred years, perhaps over 1000 years.”) … but immediately devastating to vast stretches of the living poor in Africa and elsewhere – condemning them to energy poverty that in the end consists of burning cattle dung, and wood desperately ripped from the vanishing fragile forests around them, ensuring millions of them will die in the decades ahead because of rich western “let them eat cake” liberal greenie pontifications. Of course, if one thinks that global warming might possibly slaughter tens of millions in the next few decades, it’s a different calculation, though not without its problems. But can you cite even one prominent sceptic who falls into this slot?

HH | 27 January 2016  

Laudato Si is a world wide wake up call, the most important Papal Encyclical of these times. Synopsis: Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible. St Francis of Assisi.

AO | 29 January 2016  

Food for thought: "A number of prominent climate scientists, mostly representing the scientific consensus on climate change documented by the IPCC, have tried their best to convey the message in public forums. These scientists are mostly shunned by the conservative media which commonly offers platforms for those who do not accept the scientific evidence and the basic laws of nature. A sizable group of climate scientists tends to regard the IPCC-based climate consensus as too optimistic." Dr Andrew Glikson, ANU climate scientist.

AURELIUS | 30 January 2016  

Father John George, I think you post your link to the movie review on Spotlight in the wrong column. However, I did read it at length and it seems to be just one story in a blog written by one man who is trying to sell his books claiming the whole church sex abuse scandal is a hoax and that clergy are innocent victims of a conspiracy!

AURELIUS | 30 January 2016  

Lovely photo Frank. As a Jesuit parishioner I share your joy. Perhaps your gift will encourage Pope Francis to visit Australia. What a joy that would be for all Jesuits!

Mary | 26 February 2016  

Great article Frank, giving valuable insight into the Vatican machine and how a local Jesuit law prof fits into it!

rosemary livingstone | 26 March 2016