Do mention the genocide
The Pope, at a recent Mass to commemorate the Armenian massacres of a hundred years ago, whose anniversary falls on April 24, did something that was at once not remarkable, and at the same time momentous: he used the G-word, referring to the Armenian massacres of 1915 as the first genocide of the 20th century.
The Pope’s reference was exactly what one might have expected from him, given that St John Paul II had, in 2001, used the same phrase in a joint declaration with the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Karekin II. Patriarch Karekin was present again when Pope Francis quoted his predecessor’s words.
Papal recognition of the Armenian genocide goes back further, to Pope Benedict XV. He wrote a letter of protest to the Ottoman Sultan, and he urged Germany and Austria-Hungary to intervene in favour of the Armenians. In an allocution of 1915, Benedict referred to the massacres as an “extermination”.
Despite this long papal history of recognising the genocide for what it was, the Turkish government has taken grave offence to Francis’s words and withdrawn its ambassador to the Vatican. Yet no one blames the current government of Turkey for the events of 1915; the Pope’s words aim to right a historical wrong. That the Turkish government refuses to see this is worrying. Imagine the outcry there would be if the German government of today
Many Turks despair that their government is moving away from democracy were to deny the reality of the Holocaust. Turkish refusal to recognise the truths of history on this matter is but one symptom of a mindset increasingly at odds with modernity.
Armenians in Armenia and in the wider diaspora will be pleased by the Pope’s words. They will interpret them as a sign of the esteem that the Pope and all Catholics have for the Armenian nation, the world’s oldest Christian state. Moreover, contrary to what their government may say on the matter, millions of Turks will be pleased too, seeing this as a s tep towards the normalisation of political discourse in Turkey, a country where people who use the G-word still run the risk of assassination. Many Turks despair at the way their government is moving away from democracy and Enlightenment values, and they will take heart from the Pope’s words. For there can be no true civil society without the recognition of truth.
Others will be less pleased. Islamists the world over will see this as yet another “Islamophobic” incident. It is not. No one has anything to fear from the truth. There may be repercussions, even attacks on vulnerable Christian communities in Turkey and elsewhere. Any such action would, of course, only reinforce the Pope’s message about the horror of religious violence and persecution.
e Pope’s call to mercy raises the stakes
Pope Francis last weekend officially declared a jubilee year of mercy in a document entitled Misericordiae Vultus (“The Face of Mercy”) that may prove to be the most significant of his pontificate so far. It consists of a grand and exhilarating call to the Church “to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters”. The very credibility of the Church, says the Holy Father, “is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love”.
The Holy Year of Mercy, as it will be called, will resonate throughout the entire Catholic Church when it begins on December 8. The Pope has made sure of that. Not only will he declare the door of St Peter’s a “Door of Mercy” when he ceremonially opens it; he also wants every cathedral and many other churches to open their own special doors of mercy. During Lent next year he will send “Missionaries of Mercy” who have the authority to pardon sins that carry an automatic sentence of excommunication – including procuring an abortion.
Misericordiae Vultus carries the personal stamp of Pope Francis: it describes the jubilee in terms that would not have been employed by Benedict XVI, which is not to say that the Pope Emeritus disagrees with the overwhelming need to show mercy. The Holy Year begins on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, described by the Pope as an event that tore down the walls of the Church “fortress”. This is not the language of
Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity”. Francis, the first pontiff to be ordained since the Council, has now powerfully identified himself with its more radical innovations.
The Pope’s message is inspiring, but it will do little to reassure Catholics who are worried about the possible changes to the Church’s attitudes towards divorce and homosexuality arising from next October’s Synod on the Family. Misericordiae Vultus suggests that the Holy Father is in favour of change, the details of which remain unclear. He has raised the stakes. We must pray that the Synod is a peaceful and constructive affair and does not intrude the spirit of factionalism into a joyful Holy Year of Mercy.
CATHOLIC HERALD, APRIL 17 2015 3