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There was an amusing moment in a National Geographic portrait of Pope Francis on the eve of his visit to the United States, when the then Vatican spokesman was asked how different it was working for this pope after the last one.
Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, took the example of how the two popes briefed him following a meeting with a world leader.
“It was incredible. Benedict was so clear. He would say, ‘We have spoken about these things, I agree with these points, I would argue against these other points, the objective of our next meeting will be this’ – two minutes and I’m totally clear about what the contents were.”
Francis, on the other hand, would say, “This is a wise man; he has had these interesting experiences,” Lombardi told the magazine, laughing. He added: “Diplomacy for Francis is not so much about strategy but instead, ‘I have met this person, we now have a personal relation, let us now do good for the people and for the Church.’”
In various calls I’ve taken this week from reporters doing curtain-raisers for Wednesday’s Trump-Francis encounter, I’ve been asked what they can learn from Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s relations with politicians back in Argentina.
My answer is simple: The relationship comes before the agenda.
Bergoglio struck up remarkable bonds with politicians of all parties and persuasions.
They were amazed at his grasp of the craft of politics. He understood what politicians were seeking to achieve, and the limitations within which they operated.
He is, in that sense, a deeply political animal — possibly the most political pope ever to occupy the Chair of St. Peter.
He believes in politics as a high form of charity, in Benedict XVI’s words. Part of his mission in Buenos Aires and his mission now is to reinvigorate politics. (Réhabiliter la Politique is the title of a 1999 French bishops’ document he much admires.)
Was there ever a pope who included in the magna carta of his pontificate principles for the building-up of the commonweal as he does in Evangelii Gaudium?
He used to share those four principles in his discussions with Argentine politicians, inviting them to use their skills and influence to build consensus, to enable people to work together despite their differences. He shares them today with visiting heads of state, presenting them with a bound copy of Evangelii Gaudium.
He thinks politics is, at its best, a channel for the Holy Spirit to forge unity out of diversity — a unity that does not destroy that diversity, but protects it. In his thinking, disagreement and diversity are fruits of the good spirit, while division and uniformity are diabolic.
Whenever a relationship is built that enables people to work together, despite their disagreements, for the good of others, the Holy Spirit has found a new home, just as, whenever people break off with each other citing those same disagreements, the Holy Spirit has been blocked.
In Buenos Aires he had a particular ministry to politicians, exercised through the “Social-Pastoral Office” of the archdiocese.
One of his close collaborators, Father Carlos Accaputo, built relationships across the political and sectoral divide, bringing together each year deputies, industrialists, trade unionists, and intellectuals for round-table discussions. The idea wasn’t for them to agree, but to listen to each other, and recognize each other as fellow bricklayers in the construction of a shared future.
The premise of the ‘Jornada de Pastoral Social’ — which Accaputo continues to organize — is that they are all Argentines, who care about the good of their country, and whatever their belief or religious practice, have in Catholic social teaching an ethical resource that all can draw from.
If they accept that common premise, they become collaborators in a common enterprise, even if they strongly diverge in their ideas about how to achieve it.
As I witnessed when I was back in Buenos Aires last November, the Jornada provides a space in which disagreement is dynamic rather than divisive, a means of containing divergent views while holding them in relationship.
As I listened to talk after talk, I couldn’t help thinking this was a secular, public version of Francis’s synod.
In Rome, the pope told the bishops they need not worry about disagreeing, because they were sub et cum Petro; in Buenos Aires, the politicians gathered under an Argentine flag and an enormous picture of Pope Francis.
As pope, he has continued that role, extending it to the global stage, building networks of trust and collaboration across the boundaries of nationality and faith.
He is pastor to the world’s statesmen. They beat a path to him because high political office is a lonely business and like the Buenos Aires politicians they see him as a man who understands them and what they are trying to do.
He welcomes them and encourages them. They leave him feeling a little more at peace.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an agenda. He is conscious that there are key people in this world who by virtue of their office hold the well-being of millions of people in their hands.
He wants to be in relationship with them, whoever they are, and whatever their views, so that when the opportunity to work together arises, the bond is there. They can turn to him.
His task is to create that space that allows for trust and understanding. He believes that when that happens, the Holy Spirit can work, and he will draw the best out of them.
Francis always avoids confrontation, because that’s how the devil gets in. He’d rather stay quiet, let it pass, then get out his view when it can no longer be used as a weapon.
When he wants to frame alternatives — as politicians do, as Jesus did — in order to enable a choice, he never identifies particular people, never humiliates them.
He always speaks at the level of general principle, while maintaining the relationship. He never shuts a door.
Even in the famous in-flight press conference back from Mexico in February 2016 when he was cornered by a question about Trump’s plan to build a wall, he was careful not to personalize his response but to enunciate a principle: I don’t know what he said, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, but building walls to keep people out is not Christian.
It is not just possible but desirable, in other words, to stick clearly to core principles but at the same time to be in relationship with those who do not share them.
That is the basis of good politics, of what Francis calls “big politics” — a shared basis for common action.
You don’t personalize and polarize. You don’t attack. And you keep your door open.
Above all, you seek to forge a relationship of trust so that later, at any moment, the other can pick up the phone in search of counsel or assistance.
What is Francis’s agenda with Trump next Wednesday? Forgive the simple answer. It’s to form a relationship, so that maybe they can do good together.