On the Peripheries

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Let me not speak for others. Among the many sources of my own confusion, in trying to follow news from Rome, is the word “peripheries.” Pope Francis uses this word frequently, and with visible relish.

His first trip as pope was to Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, actually closer to Tunisia than to Sicily. It is thus on the periphery of Europe, and has been in the news as the immediate destination of refugees fleeing their native Islamic states, in hope of starting new lives in Europe.

My empathy is engaged by their desperation. Such, apparently, is the unpleasantness of life in contemporary North Africa, that huge numbers knowingly risk their lives to get out, in craft dubiously seaworthy. Indeed, huge numbers have drowned.

The pope’s second trip was to Albania, another “peripheral” European destination, about the same distance across the Strait of Otranto from the high heel on the boot of Italy, as Lampedusa from the Islamic shores. A predominantly Muslim country itself, Albania has also supplied Italy over the years with countless desperate refugees.

Some sort of symbolism was clearly intended here. Symbols express meaning, so what did the Holy Father intend by these initial gestures? Surely it wasn’t gratuitously to contrast the prosperity of Christendom, with the dysfunctionality of the Dar al-Islam.

In my innocence or guilt, I was quite befuddled. Confusion was increased within the first few months of the papacy, by extempore statements that, on the one hand, criticized Europeans for their indifference to the refugee plight, and on the other, compared them to “sterile old spinsters” failing to renew their Christian identity.

Old-fashioned Catholic proselytizing was also condemned, in case anyone wanted to triangulate a scheme to welcome Muslim immigrants, but on the condition that they convert to Christianity. (Perhaps I alone entertained that idea.)

As an old hack journalist, of skeptical disposition, the question, “What are we saying here?” often comes to mind. This is what I ask, when trying to interpret any unvoiced rhetorical gesture. By standing there on Lampedusa, so judgmentally, whom was the Holy Father trying to guilt? And for what?

In the Holy Land, later, he stood silently staring at a section of the Israeli security wall – for so long, that everyone assumed he must be “commenting” in some way. So my question was, “What is the meaning of the comment?”

Was he admiring the wall aesthetically, or as an example of efficient modern engineering? Unlikely. Might he, on the contrary, be suggesting that Jews had no business putting obstacles in the way of people trying to kill them? Surely this could not be his point, either. So what was it?

But once again, there he was, standing at one of those “peripheries,” making a statement that, on a little thought, was either ambiguous, or self-contradictory, or completely incomprehensible.

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Peripheries could be said to contribute to confusion of that sort. At the epicenter of the Roman Church, singing the Mass under the dome of Saint Peter’s – an activity with which popes have long been associated – there is, I should think, no ambiguity at all.

Similarly, when teaching the received Catholic doctrine, wherever he might happen to be: for Christ must surely feel at home in any location upon the planet He created. What would be “peripheral” to Him?

This is a leading question which I think points to an answer Pope Francis would, under goading, eventually supply: the paradox that for the Catholic Church, there are really no peripheries. But if one is frequently using the word “periphery,” especially in the plural, that paradox needs to be explained.

We might take the term over-literally in some geographical (or economic) sense. Lampedusa and Albania are at geographical peripheries of the old Christian European heartland, though they wouldn’t have been when, e.g., Saint Augustine was Bishop of Hippo, in North Africa.

Cape Verde, Xai-Xai, Rangoon, Hanoi, Tonga – to follow a voyage outward from the most recent Consistory – were certainly exotic places to ship the scarlet galeri; especially in light of so many strong candidates in longer-established seats, who were passed over.

Quite apart from the new emphasis on geographical distance from Rome, I have been, like many others, quite struck by the exoticism of so many of Pope Francis’s episcopal appointments, in terms of doctrinal weight and orthodoxy.

The appointments of Cupich to Chicago, and now McElroy to San Diego, are two American examples of the international trend. We see the sudden rise to ecclesial prominence of outlying juniors with pronounced liberal or leftist, “modernizing” views, and no claim to spiritual distinction.

We are constantly instructed not to use our faculties for judgment – verily, may be gravely judged for using our brains in this way – so I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that many of these appointees might be better candidates for excommunication. That would be irrelevant. Bishops, as cardinals and popes, come and go, and how often in the history of the Church the faithful have had simply to outlast them.

Rather, there is a logical question to be asked about reaching to the “peripheries.” Is this for the purpose of taking Catholic Christianity to the ends of the earth? Or is it instead to embrace peripherality? I can’t think of a middle way here, which is not itself a form of syncretism that answers the question in the wrong way.

A subsidiary question might be posed about where we think the peripheries are. For to my view, Catholicism has become as peripheral to the lives of, say, Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Germans, as to the most distant insular tribe.

Among 13,000 diocesan Catholics, the young Soane Patita Paini Cardinal Mafi of Tonga might have far more proportionally attending Sunday Mass – than among, say, the 25 million under the national leadership of Reinhard Cardinal Marx. In the eye of God, therefore, Tonga might not be as peripheral as Germany.

Perhaps, attention to the peripheries should begin at home.

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About David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

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