The Lowest Among Us: A New Pope, An Age-Old Christian Message

Pope Francis will preach humility and fraternity in the spirit of his namesake St. Francis of Assisi. Can he make it relevant in the 21st century?

The Lowest Among Us: A New Pope, An Age-Old Christian Message
Jacques Dalarun

On Wednesday, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. He chose the name Francis. While some are investigating his past, others prefer to look forward.

Let us begin by pausing at that instant when protodeacon Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran announced the choice of the College of Cardinals. Moments later, the newly elected Pope Francis stepped out to address the massive crowd gathered below in St. Peter’s Square.

This unexpected choice of a new pope has brought with it a wind of true change: the first non-European pope since 731, Gregory III of Syria; first pope from the American continent; the first Jesuit pope. Bergoglio himself was not responsible for all this -- it was the two-thirds majority of his fellow cardinals who made the choice.

Instead, he alone chose an unprecedented name, which has only happened twice in the past millennieum, in 913 with Landon and 1978 with John Paul I.

And yet, though it is a new papal name, Francis evokes quite a familiar ring to Christians around the world. It refers to the 13th century saint known for his ecclesiastical innovation, who seemed drawn to tradition rather than change, or at least disguised it under the name of tradition. Francis of Assisi indeed lived his life as a new man: “And so, the Lord told me to be a new madman on this earth,” he was to have said, according to his companion Brother Leo.

Francis' name evokes that of a kind man, the most popular of the saints: the one who talked to the birds and the Gubbio wolf, Saint Clare’s friend, the founder of the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscans), which remains the largest of the Catholic Church communities.

As a Jesuit, Cardinal Bergoglio arrives as a cultured man. If we believe the Vatican experts, the 2005 election was a close call between him and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, meaning his papal name wasn’t improvised in the Sistine chapel on March 13th. The new pope could have decided to refer to the saint who founded the Jesuits, Saint Ignatius. He did not.

Nor did Bergoglio choose the name of a saint who was an apostle or early martyr from the first centuries -- and, as we said, his name follows no pope before him. This choice stresses the uniqueness of a name, of one man in Church history.

The Argentine chose the name of an Italian saint, “the most saintly of the Italians and the most Italian of the saints.” This decision bears even more meaning if it’s true that the cardinals from around the world indeed wished to block the Italians from regaining the papacy: the man reigning at the Holy See cannot rule against his people.

But the message ultimately goes far beyond matters of politics or management. Francis of Assisi professed fraternity among men and women, teaching that everyone comes from the same Father, making us all brothers and sisters.

Himself the son of a merchant, he and his disciples disavowed money. The poverello and “father of the poor,” mingled with the fringes of society, spent time among the lepers. Within what he preferred to call a brotherhood rather than an order, he wanted his followers to be called “ministers” which in the middle ages meant servants.

Never did he preach for the holy crusade, nor did he play a part in the struggle against heresy that led to the inquisition. Francis wished to express his Christian faith through his physical presence and a brotherly lifestyle. He cursed no category, identified no enemy.

Refusing money for himself, offering service instead, seeing brothers and sisters rather than clashing civilizations, he kept his absolute focus on Christ. These, ultimately are the ideals the name of Francis evokes.

More recently, his spirit was reignited when Assisi became the site of the international day of interreligious prayer organized by John Paul II in October 1986.

The speech the new Pope gave on St. Peter’s balcony confirmed the choice of name. The tone was set right from the beginning: simplicity, fraternity. Here was a 21st century Francis, now the bishop of Rome, who spoke to his flock before him, chuckling that the Cardinals had chosen from a pope from the "edge of the world.”

But the most forceful gesture from the “Franciscan” pope was to ask the flock to pray for him, even before he was to impart his blessing on them. The message has been successfully communicated, both in form and content. For the rest, as medieval Francis would have put it, the acts will speak for themselves.

When he claimed himself as a follower of the legacy of a medieval figure whom the writer and poet Christian Bobin described as the “very lowly,” Pope Francis has accepted the most exalted of challenges.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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