A kiss of biblical proportions: what brought the pope to his knees?
There's worrying speculation about why the pope kissed South Sudan leaders' feet, and I really hope it isn''t true
It was moving to watch Pope Francis kiss the feet (or, to be absolutely accurate, the shoes) of the warring leaders of South Sudan last week.
In human terms, it was particularly touching because the pope is an old man, so his physical effort added to the gesture of humility.
As it happens, I met one of those leaders, Riek Machar, when I visited South Sudan a few years ago.
Despite holding a PhD in philosophy and strategic planning from the University of Bradford, he is something of a rough diamond.
I would not have risked kissing his feet myself. But that, of course, is only the more reason for Pope Francis to have done so: great sinners have great need.
The story of South Sudan shows how much divine help is required.
At the time I met Machar, his country had just emerged from many years of tyranny under the government of North Sudan, whose appalling ruler, Omar al-Bashir, was finally removed in a coup last week after 30 years of wrongdoing.
South Sudan thus became a place enjoying new freedom.
That feeling came partly from the fact that it is mainly Christian: the Khartoum government that oppressed it had once harboured Osama bin Laden.
It was run by Islamist extremists who persecuted Christians.
So when the leaders of this new Christian country later turned on one another and began killing, this represented spiritual as well as political failure.
Last week’s Vatican setting for reconciliation was appropriate, not only because of religious prestige but also because the occasion was ecumenical.
It was a spiritual retreat involving the pope, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and a former moderator of the Church of Scotland. Their denominations are all represented in South Sudan, and among its leaders.
The reconciliation, therefore, was not just between politicians but once-warring churches.
Neither Catholics nor Protestants would have dared seek such a gathering until recent times.
The church civil war that began at the Reformation raged for roughly 400 years. Even today, it still smoulders.
Archbishop Welby spoke of the pope’s action as showing “the power of weakness”.
This was exactly the right phrase, especially in this week before Easter, which commemorates the power of weakness that Jesus displayed in his own life and death.
On Thursday, I shall be helping at our local mass. Every mass recalls Jesus’s Last Supper, but this one above all, because it falls on its day.
One of my duties will be to tag along with the basin of water as the priest washes the feet of 12 parishioners, as Jesus did for his 12 apostles.
In his small way, the priest does what Pope Francis is doing and what Jesus did first.
Does it work, though? The seemingly obvious answer is: “Usually, no.”
People pray constantly for peace, and sometimes meet their opponents to do so. They often forgive one another – or say they have done so – and then kick off all over again.
There is no overwhelming reason to think Machar and his enemies will not restart their battles, even though a real, live pope has begged them, literally on bended knee, not to.
But against that gloomy answer, two points can be made.
The first is that sometimes people’s hearts really are turned. Ever since St Paul fell off his horse on the road to Damascus, stopped persecuting Jesus and started following him, this has happened.
The second matters more, because it always applies. It is not that religion cures the defects of mankind: it is that it enables mankind to recognise what those defects are.
We do wrong, but the concept of wrong means nothing without a concept of right. Religion captures and dramatises this; seldom more than when an old man of power kneels.
These gestures will not work, however, if people suspect their motives. So I was dismayed to hear on BBC Radio 4 an expert give a context for Pope Francis’s public acts, which suggested they should be seen as a long-running crusade (I don’t think that sensitive word was actually used) against Donald Trump.
Follow whatever President Trump does, said this sage – on climate change, immigration, Muslims etc – and you will see Pope Francis following behind to say the opposite.
Steve Bannon, formerly Trump’s populist guru, seems to agree, and recently spoke of the pope as “the enemy”.
I really hope this is not true. Naturally, any pope should criticise the mighty without fear or favour, but to set him himself up against one elected leader demeans his role.
When John Paul II, coming out of persecuted Poland, told people, in his first sermon as pope: “Be not afraid”, no one could reduce his message to “We’re coming after you, you Commie bastards”, although of course Communists feared him for what he said (and probably tried to kill him).
He spoke to all Christians, indeed to all people.
There is plenty to dislike about Trump. Although people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, I venture to guess that he is exceptionally un-Christian in his attitudes.
But the pope should not be the anti-Trump.
Wearing the shoes of the fisherman, he has other fish to fry.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)