A celebration of Niagara University’s Catholic and Vincentian heritage in 2013 wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of Pope Francis, the Argentinian who was chosen as the 266th pontiff of the Catholic Church in March.
That conversation occurred Wednesday afternoon – perhaps appropriately at the midway point of Vincentian Heritage Week – in the Gallagher Center’s Multi-Purpose Room. Approximately 75 students, employees and members of the local community participated in the “mission panel” discussion that was led by the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., NU president, the Rev. John Gouldrick, C.M., associate vice president for mission, and Dr. Robert St. Hilaire, assistant professor of religious studies.
Father Gouldrick initiated the conversation by addressing the Holy Father’s philosophy on international conflicts, namely the one currently taking place in Syria. He noted that Pope Francis opted against the utilization of “Just War Theory,” which has often framed debates as to whether a political entity would be morally justified in entering a war, as well as what moral boundaries might be infringed upon when certain military weapons were employed.
“I would propose that his vision for humanity was the fundamental reason that he pleaded for a diplomatic strategy to end the Syrian conflict,” Father Gouldrick said. “Pope Francis does not operate from a politically liberal or conservative base. He operates from this base – that every human being has value and worth.”
Dr. St. Hilaire, who received an M.T.S. and Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School, spent time presenting on the legitimacy of the American mainstream media’s portrayal of the pope’s “rather novel and refreshing papal style.” He posited that the media may be leading a rush to judgment by depicting Pope Francis as a sharp contrast to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
“In his one and only encyclical (papal letter) so far, which is entitled Lumen fidei, or ‘the Light of Faith,’ Pope Francis laments the loss of truth in contemporary culture. By ‘truth’ here, he means moral and religious truth, ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T,’ as he puts it at one point. He argues that one of the great dangers to today’s world is the unwillingness to make firm, overarching truth claims about God, religion, morality, and good and evil. Insofar as we fail to recognize universal and objective moral and religious truths – insofar as we make religion and morality a matter of personal opinion or preference – we ultimately cannot distinguish right from wrong and are doomed to wander through life blindly and without direction,” Dr. St. Hilaire said.
Still, Dr. St. Hilaire suggested Pope Francis’s attitude of implicit openness and compassion, while not necessarily in contradiction to Pope Benedict’s approach, is different from Pope Benedict’s approach.
“Although Pope Francis in no way denies the necessity of moral rules and rule-giving, he states in his interview (with the Jesuit periodical, America) that the gospel is first and foremost good news – love, compassion, forgiveness, salvation. By refusing to pass judgment on homosexuality, Pope Francis was choosing to look first to the dignity of the whole human being, not whether or not that human being did something bad. This pastoral and theological emphasis, it seems to me, reflects the very heart of the Christian message, and it is a tender hand many Catholics desperately want to feel today.”
Father Maher, who assumed the university’s presidency on Aug. 1, talked about what he called the pope’s “model of Christian simplicity.” He noted that Pope Francis could be characterized as a phenomenon, at least in academic terms, given the public’s fascination with the images of the Holy Father checking himself out of a hotel, foregoing a chauffeured ride to take a bus, and calling his delivery boy to personally cancel his newspaper subscription.
What’s so compelling then about Pope Francis, Father Maher theorized, is his simplicity of life.
“The pope’s viewpoints are really rooted in the dignity of the human person, which transcends ideology and transcends human nature,” Father Maher said. “Simplicity of life creates connectivity. You don’t see a fragmentation that way, you see connectivity.
“(His philosophy) cuts to the core of our identity. How do we think about ourselves? We need to identify ourselves at our core with our human dignity and our relationship with God.”
Or as St. Vincent would say, “simplicity lives well when you say what you mean and you mean what you say.”