Deeper Message of Pope’s TED Talk
TWO SCENES FROM POPE FRANCIS’S REVOLUTION OF TENDERNESS
Five decades ago, in an essay in The New York Review of Books, Hannah Arendt described an exchange she had had with a “Roman chambermaid” about Pope John XXIII. The beloved pontiff had died, of stomach cancer, two years earlier, not long before the Second Vatican Council, which he convened, transformed the liturgy and the spirit of the Catholic Church. “How could it happen that a true Christian would sit on St. Peter’s chair?” the chambermaid asked, apparently referring to the succession of venal company men who had held the office over the centuries. “Didn’t he first have to be appointed Bishop, and Archbishop, and Cardinal, until he finally was elected to be Pope? Had nobody been aware of who he was?”
A version of the same question has often been asked about Pope John’s current successor, Francis. Did the conservative, crimson-garbed men who elevated him to the papacy, in 2013, know what they were getting? In the past four years, Francis has spoken forcefully and forthrightly about the world’s most urgent problems—the bankruptcy of free-market capitalism, the plight of migrants, the stresses of liberal democracy, climate change, demagogic populism, economic inequality. He has done all this with verve, good humor, and a self-accepting modesty. And, most important, he has been heard. The dangerous currents of world politics have made him into a global tribune of human aspiration; it is no longer news that the Pope is a true Christian. Last week, Bruno Giussani, the European director of ted, said that “Francis has become possibly the only moral voice capable of reaching people across boundaries and providing clarity and a compelling message of hope.”
This unexpected endorsement coincided with an equally unexpected event—Francis’s appearance, via video feed, at Vancouver’s ted2017 conference, where he spoke on the theme “The Future You.” For twenty minutes, the Pope held the rapt attention of the technopreneurs, a post-religious legion if ever there was one. (So far, ted’s virtual congregation has viewed his talk more than a million and a half times.) Francis has, in the past, challenged “media and the digital world” for preventing “people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply, and to love generously,” but his subject in Vancouver was broader than the “mental pollution” of screen overload. He offered his audience of future-inventing techies both a positive message and a challenge, pleading with them not to forget the marginalized. “How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion?” he said. “Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face.”
The Pope underscored the deeper message of his ted talk a few days later, on a trip to Egypt. There he joined in the pain of the country’s Coptic Christians, who have been reeling from a pair of isis-inspired bombings that killed forty-five worshippers on Palm Sunday and maimed dozens of others. “Your sufferings are also our sufferings,” Francis said, referring not only to the recent attacks but also to the sect’s long history of assault and discrimination. With Pope Tawadros II, his Coptic counterpart, Francis engaged in what he called an “ecumenism of blood,” even issuing a surprise joint declaration whereby the two churches, alienated for a millennium and a half, recognized each other’s baptisms. Across an ancient boundary, Francis was a Christian standing with beleaguered fellow-Christians.
On the same trip, the Pope crossed another, more pointedly symbolic boundary. His journey retraced the mythic pilgrimage of his namesake, St. Francis, who travelled to Egypt, in 1219, in a futile attempt to end the Crusades. The saint may have imagined converting the local sultan, but what he mostly sought was a détente between Islam and Christianity. That religious divide persists today, of course, and still carries a Crusader legacy. In Cairo, Pope Francis met with Muslim leaders at Al-Azhar University, which was established more than a hundred years before Oxford and remains the most important religious educational institution in the Muslim world. Condemning the “barbarity” of terrorism, he invited the gathered clerics to join him in saying “once more a clear and firm ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance, and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.” Francis referred indirectly, but plainly, to Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt’s authoritarian President, saying, “History does not forgive those who preach justice but then practice injustice. History does not forgive those who talk about equality but then discard those who are different.” Sisi was not the only one to hear that rebuke; his heartened opposition did, too.
It may seem strange to yoke the élite ritual of a ted talk to a high-risk reckoning with inflamed religiosity in a war zone. In fact, though, Francis only ever addresses “The Future You” wherever he goes. Last month, in a speech before the heads of the European Union, his theme was solidarity, and he returned to it at ted2017. Solidarity, he said, is not just for social workers or community organizers or activists—the do-gooders. No. Why shouldn’t it be the prime value for everyone, “the default attitude in political, economic, and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples, and countries”? To ted’s vast hall of uplifted, eager faces, and to its dispersed multitude of screen-watchers, the Pope could not have been more frank. “Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly,” he told them. “If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.”
Francis spoke to the privileged in Vancouver and to the besieged in Cairo when he said, in his ted talk, “Many of us, nowadays, seem to believe that a happy future is something impossible to achieve.” That is not true in either case—or so this old man insists. He speaks, yes, as a Christian, but also as a moral voice that history has wondrously lifted up. “The future does have a name, and its name is hope,” he said. “A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another ‘you,’ and another ‘you,’ and it turns into an ‘us.’ ” Then begins the longed-for revolution, which Francis presumes to label “a revolution of tenderness.” That no other world figure talks this way, in ted or out, is not the problem. It’s the point.
James Carroll is the author of eleven novels, most recently “Warburg in Rome,” and eight works of nonfiction, most recently “Christ Actually: Reimagining Faith in the Modern Age.”