The address of Pope Francis to the General Assembly is a watershed moment for the 70th anniversary of the United Nations and sets an example to religious leaders everywhere. Sometimes a speech can change the world. In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech, on the occasion of India’s independence on August 15, 1947 redefined notions of freedom and became emblematic of the post-colonial struggle around the globe.
Echoing his South Asian counterpart, then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in a speech in 1956, provoking a global confrontation with enormous geopolitical ramifications for the Middle East. Seven years later, Martin Luther King shared his “I had a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, a hallmark of the civil rights movement and one of the most quoted speeches in history.
Each speech had its context but they are alike in paradigmatic significance and in their ability to spark an introspective reassessment of our humanity. On September 25, 2015, Pope Francis’ address to the United Nations set an example to all religious leaders on their role and responsibility at a time when the world – and humanity altogether – seems very much adrift.
In terms of transformative speeches, the Pope’s address is unique in a number of ways. On the one hand, it stands out by virtue of who the Pope is. Indeed, by addressing everything from climate change, economic development and income inequality, he has positioned himself not just as a religious leader but a conscientious, engaged – even progressive – global thinker. In that sense, the Pope is an unexpected messenger of some very significant messages.
His influence, therefore, should not be underestimated. In the US alone, says a Pew Research Center survey conducted recently, Pope Francis enjoyed a 90 percent favorability rating among American Catholics. In addition, he is now rated favorably by 70 percent of all Americans, up from 57 percent in March 2013. Not to mention his ability to fundamentally alter the contours of internationally diplomacy by facilitating a warming of relations between the US and Cuba.
For a representative of 1.2 billion Catholics (from a total of 2.2 billion Christians), his message served as an important rebuttal against the perception that religion is a driver of conflict. Indeed, religion today is being defined by televised beheadings, the ransacking of Parisien synagogues and sword-wielding Buddhist lynch mobs.
The central tenants of world religions – compassion, equality and justice – have been eclipsed by hatred, intolerance and violent extremism as portrayed by traditional and social media outlets. To hear the Pope speak of the “common home of all men and women”, “universal fraternity” and the “sacredness of created nature” serves as a useful and refreshing reminder of the essence of religion, especially given its powerful use (and misuse) in politics and international affairs.
Religion, therefore, is merely a fig leaf for the perpetrators of violence. It is first and foremost the bestial instinct within man which is the true source of such social and political ills. In the Pope’s words, the “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity” has led to both the “misuse of available resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged”.
In referencing the dangers of exclusion, the Pope has touched on a nuance that the multilateral system is guilty of shying away from: in UN terminology, this is the so-called “root causes” debate.
Indeed, the bold argument made in his address is that political malignancies, for example, terrorism and organized crime, are simply a manifestation of a lack of social inclusion and a deficit of participatory governance.
There is potentially no better weapon against crimes committed in the name of religion than religion itself. Following his appearance at the UN, the Pope participated in an interfaith gathering at the 9/11 memorial. While this was indeed a display of communal harmony and pluralism, it was equally a cri de couer against religious extremism and, as he called it in his address, “falsely universalistic ideologies”.
It is this form of interfaith gesture – spearheaded by a figure with gravitas like the Pope – which remains a lacking component in the global effort to counter and prevent violent extremism. A credible, persuasive and universal narrative against extremism is desperately needed to dilute destructive ideologies wrapped in religious garb.
The Pope is undoubtedly setting an example among leaders within other faiths and denominations. The question that remains however is who among 1.6 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus and hundreds of million Buddhists can play a similar role? Who is that emblematic figure who can go beyond representing a major faith and provide a message that is as bold, persuasive and universal?
Above all, the Pope exemplified strong and engaged leadership, a feature much lacking in today’s disarrayed world, seemingly headlined with the question: Who is in charge? This leadership deficit has made the future of humanity all the more terrifying amidst a backdrop of war, pandemics and chronic displacement.
And yet it is a leadership couched in modesty and humility. As the speech came to an end, the Pope asked: “If any of you are not believers, I ask you to wish me well.”
Sometimes a speech can change the world. The responsibility to enact that change however rests not with the speaker alone but with our ability to reflect on the wording, internalize its lessons and take action in whatever way we can. On its 70th anniversary, the Pope has given the United Nations some serious food for thought.