His Holiness Pope Francis caused a mild stir last Saturday evening when he failed to appear at a Vatican concert. The concert was organized long before the elevation of Pope Francis, and was part of the celebration for the Year of Faith. The concert included Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, part of which includes what we commonly refer to as the Ode to Joy. Because he did not attend, the Pope’s seat remained empty. Prior to the start of the concert, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, explained the Pope was not coming because of an “urgent commitment that could not be delayed.” Press reports indicated that Pope Francis had been meeting papal nuncios visiting the Vatican from around the world. Thus, he could have been very busy with meetings. However, some interpreted his failure to attend the concert as a snub and criticism of high life in the Vatican. So, instead of being entertained at a concert, Pope Francis chose to work. But just the day before the scheduled concert, Pope Francis may have tipped his hand when he said that bishops should be “close to the people,” and not have “the mentality of a prince.”
You may recall that upon his elevation to the papacy, Pope Francis rode back to the Santa Marta residence on the bus with the other cardinals, instead of using a Vatican limousine. He even stopped back at the hotel he stayed at prior to the papal conclave to pay his bill and to thank the staff. Pope Francis refuses to wear lavish papal clothing, and chose an iron cross instead of one made from gold. He continues to live simply in the Santa Marta residence for visiting priests and other churchmen, instead of the luxurious papal apartment, eats most of his meals in the common area of Santa Marta, and also serves Mass most mornings to Vatican staff and visiting clergy at the residence instead of at his private chapel. Prior to Easter, he washed and kissed the feet of a dozen young inmates in a juvenile detention center in Rome. For the first time, among those whose feet were washed and kissed were two young women and two Moslems.
In contrast, today Mr. and Mrs. Obama, and the First Children, will travel to the sub-Saharan African nations of Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. (Kenyans were unhappy that their nation was bypassed by Mr. Obama on this trip.) Mr. Obama will meet with government officials, as well as leaders from business, civil society, and youth groups. The President’s stated objectives are to reinforce close ties between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa, and to increase trade relations. Further, Mr. Obama hopes to foster acceptance in Africa of homosexual rights. (According to Amnesty International, Senegal and Tanzania are among the 34 African nations that currently punish homosexuality with jail time. Four other nations, Mauritania, northern Nigeria, southern Somalia, and Sudan punish homosexuality with the death penalty.) After all, Mr. Obama revels in the shrewd and capable effectiveness of his foreign policy. Accordingly, he hopes that this trip garners greater tolerance for homosexuals in traditionally conservative African societies, reduces significantly military threats, and strengthens peace throughout Africa. Although there is no money presently for American youth and school groups to tour the White House because of “sequestration,” there seem to be no limit to funds available for this African tour, or for the President’s other frequent trips and vacations. The Washington Post reported, leaked apparently by another pesky, disgruntled government employee, that the trip will cost up to $100 million dollars. Why so much? First, Mr. Obama travels with a large retinue (or as is said by some in Chicago, a “posse”). In fact, it was observed that Mr. Obama, at the recent G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, traveled with more staff and security than all other participants combined. For this African trip, hundreds of U.S. Secret Service agents have been on-site for weeks to secure facilities in Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. (I do hope that the Secret Service agents have behaved more circumspectly since Mr. Obama’s travels to Colombia.) Then, there is a Navy aircraft carrier, the carrier group’s supporting ships, and other amphibious ships, with fully staffed medical trauma centers, that will be stationed immediately offshore in case of an emergency. (It is tragic that we didn’t have those operating near Benghazi last September. Oh wait, we did, but I digress.) Military cargo planes have already airlifted 56 support vehicles, including 14 limousines and three trucks loaded with sheets of thick bullet-proof glass to cover the windows of the hotels where the Obamas will stay. Although the US has now become a virtual no-fly zone because of military pilot and other military aviation training cutbacks, the Obamas will have fighter jets flying overhead in shifts, giving 24-hour coverage over the Obamas’ airspace. This will allow the fighters to intervene quickly if a plane with annoying paparazzi gets too close.
So, it seems to me that Mr. and Mrs. Obama get to spend a cool hundred mill on another overseas vacation, which he views as a “crucial” official visit to “partners in regional security conflicts” in order to “forge stronger economic ties.” I look forward to seeing how much new business and trade will flow to the United States after this trip, and how many new American jobs will be created from our exports to sub-Saharan Africa. But I do wonder what Pope Francis might think of a trip that exudes great wealth and opulence. But I might venture a good guess: on Holy Thursday, when he washed the feet of those in juvenile detention, Pope Francis reminded us of the teaching in St. Matthew’s Gospel 20: 26-27, which says, “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” There is quite a contrast between these two leaders, don’t you think?