Pope Francis has a dream
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
A review says, 'Whether or not you are Catholic, or even Christian', a new book by the Pope 'provides some clear steps that we all need to take to rebuild following the "collective storm" of Covid-19.' Debbie Thrower has been reading Let Us Dream (Simon and Schuster, 2020):
Pope Francis has been called ‘the world’s spiritual director,’ ‘a storm pilot to guide humanity through one of its darkest nights’. His new book is the fruit of a series of interviews he undertook with British journalist, Dr Austen Ivereigh.
As the Pope’s collaborator on the resulting book, Ivereigh writes how through the pandemic ‘the world had entered a dark night’ and the Pope ‘was walking with us, shining a torch on to the paths ahead and warning us of the cliff edges. He sought to communicate the urgency of opening the people to the grace that was always on offer in times of tribulation, and so let God shape our story.’
I heard Ivereigh speak about the book because an acquaintance had sent me a link recently to an internet discussion of the book which took place between himself and two priests. At first, as I watched, I admit, I wasn't especially curious but then conversation turned to what Pope Francis had to say about what he called 'the abandoned elderly’, how change post-Covid-19 should come by listening to people ‘on the margins’.
'The abandonment of the elderly an enormous injustice'
Pope Francis sees a new future opening up if we pay attention to the cry that goes up from the margins of society and discern a yearning movement of God’s Spirit. ‘For example,’ he writes: ‘one sad sign of our times is the exclusion and isolation of the elderly.’
Referring to his experience in the country of his birth, Argentina, he told how: ‘I often went to such homes in Buenos Aires, where the caregivers do an amazing job in spite of so many obstacles. I remember once them telling me that many of the residents hadn’t been seen by their relatives in at least six months. The abandonment of the elderly is an enormous injustice.’
We know that care homes in this country have been closed to relatives for the past year. Only gradually is that beginning to change now with the latest lifting of restrictions to allow one designated person per resident to be allowed in as long as they test clear of Covid-19 first and wear full PPE.
But even before the pandemic, how many care home residents were receiving regular visits from family and friends? We know as Anna Chaplains that too few is the answer, and in some cases shockingly few visitors – if at all – come and go regularly for the majority of residents.
Yet, scripture tells us, writes the Pope, ‘the elderly are our roots, our source, our sustenance.’
Elsewhere in his book, divided into three sections – See, Choose, Act – he writes about other groups on the margins: immigrants; refugees; the poorest indigenous peoples in regions torn apart by war; those most subject to intense economic pressures; the trafficked modern-day slaves.
Pope Francis looks back on times in Argentina when he would sometimes go out at night incognito with the collectors of cardboard who had organised themselves into gangs, some of them just children to sort through the rubbish of Buenos Aires to find enough of value to sell on. He was so impressed by their resourcefulness and their kindred spirit, looking out for one another’s families when times were hard, for instance.
Recycling of life
He is realistic in pointing out though that, like every group of people, there were some who were less community minded and who resorted to violence and swindling. But nevertheless, the memory of their enterprising nature and hard work on the whole, as they sought to feed their families had stayed with him: ‘In organising they entered into their own kind of conversion, a recycling of their own lives. And along the way they changed the way Argentines viewed their garbage, helping them to understand the value of reusing and recycling.’
This ‘recycling of their own lives’ reminds me of the milling over, the sifting of memories that the old tend to do when spending protracted time alone. It can be a positive when (and if) we are freed from being caught in a loop of resentments, guilt or remorse and instead sift out the memories worth keeping. Perhaps, the rest may be jettisoned in order to travel onward, travel light. What that might look like to an outsider, is someone just sitting alone in a care home lost in their own thoughts, unproductive, out of the mainstream. On the contrary, though, it might be an important task of our old age to sift and sort and lighten our burden?
Pope Francis states that the health of a society can be judged by its periphery. ‘A periphery that is abandoned, sidelined, despised and neglected shows an unstable, unhealthy society that cannot long survive without major reforms.’
It is striking the degree to which older people are included in those groups he shines a spotlight on as today’s most impoverished, and those who if we could only see and hear from them we would find some of the answers to our emerging from the pandemic in better shape as a society than we were before.
In his mid-80s now himself, the Pope concludes, that it is a matter of human dignity: ‘By making the restoration of our people’s dignity the central objective of the post-Covid world, we make everyone’s dignity the key to our actions. To guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future.’
Remarkably, Let Us Dream appears in both an English and a Spanish version only months since it was first embarked upon. A Spanish-speaker, Ivereigh collaborated on both versions (with help from other translators) and says the Spanish one retains the phrases and patterns of speech of the people of the Pope’s native Buenos Aires.
Both editions have been published astonishingly quickly given the Pope only gave the interviews last summer. Then began a laborious process of transcribing, revising, editing and yet more revision by author and interviewer. Conversations between the pair took place by email or via Zoom.
Austen Ivereigh, who has also written a biography of Pope Francis (Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and his struggle to convert the Catholic Church, Henry Holt, 2019) praises Pope Francis, finally, for his energy, passion and humour and says he will ‘always be deeply grateful to him for his trust.’
I’m very glad I received the link to the YouTube discussion and subsequently bought the book, because it has much to say about this liminal moment in our history and offers wise words on what we might want the future to look like once the present crisis is over.
‘We must not let the current clarifying moment pass us by,’ he urges. ‘Let it not be said, in years to come, that in response to the coronavirus we failed to act to restore the dignity of our peoples. To recover our memory and to remember our roots.’
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions