What does Pope Francis mean when he talks about salvation?
ROME, Italy, October 22, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) ― Rome is both a dream and a nightmare.
I love the old city: the rich palette of shades on the crumbling walls, the cobblestones underfoot, the cheerful greetings in the cafes, the smell of sugar wafting from bakeries, the taste of my morning cappuccino. My husband and I can walk to Mass; we bump into friends in church or on the Borgo Pio; we make lunch dates and bask in the October sun.
But now everyone wears masks indoors and out, which gives life in Rome a horror film dimension: the Eternal City is now populated by zombies, the famously expressive faces hidden behind ―well, “face diapers” is not entirely an unjust term. Cloth or plastic, they’re meant to catch noxious effluvia. An innocent unmasked sneeze is now an obscenity, apparently.
Masks make it more difficult to understand and to be understood, which is no joke when you’re operating in a foreign language. They add to my sense of confusion, especially when reporting. My confusion is compounded by the sudden disappearance of translation services as they were once laid on by the Sala Stampa, the press office of the Holy See. For every newsworthy event, I now have a choice: go in person and rely on my language skills, or stay at home and watch it second-hand over EWTN.
How I miss those invisible Italian ladies speaking English through headphones into my so-willing ears! Last October, everything seemed laid on for bright-eyed North American reporters: a pass good for weeks, the cozy auditorium, the headphones, WiFi on tap, paper copies of documents marked “Embargo”, colleagues to greet or subtly insult online. Now I have to apply for a pass for each event, find each socially distanced locale, strain to catch all the words, and count myself lucky if I see a familiar half-face among the journalists.
Some half-faces in Rome are easy to recognize, however. Yesterday I covered the International Meeting for Prayers for Peace from the impressive Piazza del Campidoglio on top of the Capitoline Hill, and the white-masked face of Pope Francis appeared on screens shortly after 4 PM. He was processing into the Ara Coeli Basilica with Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, whom I now revere for the clarity of his Italian, for the first part of the interfaith event.
The sight of the pontiff in a white cotton mask disturbed me, for he allegedly has only one lung, and he sounded more breathless than ever. And the sight of so many Christians ―cardinals, nuns, priests, evangelicals, orthodox―wearing masks and sitting a coffin-depth apart was depressing. But then almost everyone around me was socially distancing and wearing masks, too. The exceptions were the cameramen, who jostled for position on the steps of the museum behind us and took off their mascherine to smoke.
Non-Christian prayers for peace took place simultaneously in the museums: these were not streamed into the piazza, but we could see the distinctively dressed worshippers come and go. When the services ended, a Sala Stampa cameraman kicked me off my piece of step and I glumly went to sit in a socially distanced chair in the piazza. I pondered large signs with the name of the event in Italian and, weirdly translated, in English.
“Salvarsi” is a reflexive verb. “Nessuno si salva da solo: pace e fraternità” means “No-one saves himselfalone: peace and fraternity,” but the official English translation is “No-one is savedalone: peace and fraternity.” You don’t need a theology degree to know there’s a big fat Pelagius-sized difference between saving yourself and being saved. If, as in Pope Francis’ largely earth-bound document Fratelli tutti, we are talking about temporal matters, humans-saving-humans makes sense. But I was covering a religious event, an interfaith religious event. What kind of salvation was Pope Francis talking about?
I’m a JPII kid who grew up wondering why Catholic life and worship before I was born had changed so much. Nobody around me talked about the Assisi interfaith gathering of 1986, and I didn’t think much about it until I saw a news clipping about it on the office door of a Boston College professor who was a convert to Islam. Then I was shocked. I don’t remember why, but I was.
I sincerely hope for the eternal salvation of all men, but at the same time, I believe that Jesus Christ is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” and “nobody comes to the Father except through” Him (John 14:6). I don’t understand how encouraging non-Christian prayer is supernaturally helpful to anyone.
I understand that the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate honors the elements of truth found in other religions, but I don’t understand the current flirtation with non-Christian symbols like Pachamama and the idea that God wills different religions. In old books “confusing the faithful” is a clerical crime. Well, I’m faithful, and I’m confused.
During the interfaith meeting in the Piazza, however I was not so much confused as despairing: after Bartholomew’s speech on the ecological crisis, the religious leaders ceased to speak Italian. Haïm Korsia, the Chief Rabbi of France, spoke French, so that was okay (he mentioned poor murdered Samuel Paty, by the way), but Mohamed Abdelsalam Abdellatif Mohamed spoke in Arabic. Zen monk Shoten Minegishi spoke Japanese. Karmaljit Singh Dillon presumably spoke Punjabi. At that point, I would have been better off at home with the EWTN livestream, I’m sorry to say. October evenings in Italy are cold, and I was freezing.
But then it was Pope Francis’s turn to speak, and I listened hard to sort out what he means when he says nobody is saved (or saves himself) alone. And he seemed to mean what he said in Fratelli tutti: we can’t continue to have a nice life here on earth unless everyone is able to have a nice life here on earth. He also seemed to suggest that the temporal survival of humanity is at stake, for he said that it is possible to construct a world of peace and thus, brothers and sisters, salvarci insieme:to save ourselves together.
John Lennon would have loved it; St Thomas Aquinas not so much.
After an “Appeal for Peace” was read out, a procession of masked children displayed, a candelabra lit, and the “Appeal” signed by people in colourful dress ― as sentimental music like Pachabel’s “Canon in D” poured from the speakers ― the event ended with a socially distanced “sign of peace.” Masked people nodded to each other in the 7 PM gloom.
Then I went home, walking swiftly down the Capitoline Hill, through the dark Roman streets past the ruins of the Theater of Marcellus, past Italian Jewish restaurants with tables still empty on the pavement, their waiters in kippahs and masks. Somewhere on the other side of Giordano Bruno’ s monument, I buzzed a buzzer and was relieved to hear my husband’s voice. I hoped he had made a nice supper, for I had hours of writing ahead of me.
A large white bird flew over the Piazza di Campidoglio at least twice, by the way. Make of that what you will.