Reflection on Pope Francis at the UN – History will judge you by your actions, not your fine declarations

The sense of euporia around the UN this morning was palpable. Pope mania has hit Manhattan. The visit of Pope Francis generated a well needed morale boost to the UN at a time when it is coming under increasing pressure on all fronts. It enabled everyone to set aside their differences to look in the mirror and contemplate the view from a fresh perspective. Pope Francis today spoke not just as a faith leader, but as a global leader – one of the very few leaders today who can speak from a truly global viewpoint, without vested interests of a brand or partisan ideology.

The UN General Assembly Hall was full to bursting. The ears of the world, a microcosm of humanity, waited in anticipation, and quite possibly apprehension. It almost seemed as if this hallowed hall, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a space ship, might take off at any minute.

As he took to the podium, Pope Francis looked weighed down. This was not the jovial man with the easy smile and Mexican sombrero. The pain of the entire world seemed written into the deep furrows on his face. The struggles of refugees, orphans, destitute, excluded sat heavily on his shoulders. The burden of his office, of his destiny, and his personal love for each and every human being and creature evident in his words and gestures. It was as if he came to the UN, but brought with him in his heart, the entire human family and indeed, creation. If he could, he would have wished to name them one by one: Maria, Charity, Alberto, Júan Carlos, Mohamed, Yan… He would have brought the endangered tigers, the polar bears, the ice-caps. The poor of this world, he reminded us, are not statistics, but mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. Indeed, they are our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. We cannot let bureaucracy and number games cloud our vision or dim our sense of compassion.

The created world we see around us, moreover, are not ours to destroy and pillage, but beings like us with intrinsic value. “Any harm done to the environment is harm to humanity.” He reminded us that contrary to what we might believe, we are more one with each other and nature that we can possibly imagine. Indeed, we are nature.

This Pope does not mince his words and his message was uncompromising. The Sustainable Development Goals, to be signed off today, he said, are indeed a ‘sign of hope’. That cannot be denied. These new global goals could mark a watershed of global consciousness, a new planetary consensus – a potential revolution in thinking. Henceforth, we won’t be able to think of progress unless it can be demonstrated on all three fronts of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental.

Yet there is a serious risk that these goals, like many goals before them, remain a kind of ‘declarationism’. Empty promises which mask a hypocrisy of the highest order. Solemn commitments are never enough and never have been. Pope Francis reminds us that a concept of justice worthy of the human person demands more. If promises are not accompanied by effective, practical and constant efforts to translate them into action, they become temptation and a vanity exercise – a means to assuage our consciences. If these goals are to become real, then the economic and social policies which perpetuate inequality need change.

Key to translating commitments into action is political will, and the capacity of the institutions we create to effect change. Pope Francis was blunt in his criticism and singled out the reform of the international system to make it more inclusive as one of the most pressing challenges of our time. The system we have is outdated and unless we grasp the need for deep reform, to give everyone a voice, nothing will change.

He lamented the way in which international laws, which are well elaborated by the UN and international lawyers, are routinely abused, ignored and used as cover for ideological ends. He lamented the way in which the majority of nations, moreover, have limited say in the key decisions at the UN and in the international financial institutions which determine their futures. He specifically called for reforms of the UN Security Council and financial institutions as key starting points.

Some NGOs working on sustainable development, climate change or other issues might be disappointed by the Pope’s remarks. He didn’t call for specific outcomes to the climate change negotiations, he didn’t offer specific prescriptions for international policies to reform the excesses of the market economy. Pope Francis intervention today was on a whole other level. It was a call for a return to basic integrity in our politics, fairness in our economics and compassion in our societies. It was a moving call to move away from the shallow politics of spin and soundbite. In essence what he said was simple: words are cheap. Now is a time for a change of heart – and for action. No more empty promises. No more self-congratulation on fine declarations. Leaders can choose to ignore his message if they wish, but they certainly cannot dismiss him.

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