While Pope Benedict XVI sought to consolidate Catholic doctrine in a secular world, Pope Francis is devoting more of his papacy to bringing peace to the world's conflict zones.
Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI was less focused on world conflicts, preferring instead to use most of his energies to reaffirm traditional Catholicism in a society increasingly indifferent to religion.
The Church’s internal problems and unwelcome tensions with both the Jewish and Muslim communities also complicated Vatican efforts on the international stage during the eight-year papacy of Benedict XVI.
But Jorge Bergoglio — as Pope Francis was born 77 years ago in Buenos Aires — stepped onto the global stage on more solid ground. His call last September for a day of prayers for peace in Syria, when strikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad seemed imminent, had an enormous impact, especially in the Islamic world.
In fact, some believe Francis played a critical role in the U.S. decision to suspend strikes. Days before the day of prayers, Francis wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of a meeting between heads of state, and that communication helped facilitate a change of postures.
During the traditional Christmas message, Pope Francis renewed his call for peace in Syria, where civil war continues with relentless horror, and reiterated his belief in negotiations as the way to end the bloodletting.
Holy Land visit
He also cited the conflicts in Africa, above all in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, where religious factors such as fanaticism with an Islamic label are at play. He also voiced his hope for that ever-elusive agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians and for Iraq’s pacification.
Contrary to what some were expecting, the Pope did not announce a visit to the Middle East, though it is almost certain that he will travel there in May.
That pilgrimmage — which will include Jordan, Israel (Jerusalem) and the Palestinian territories (Bethlehem) — won’t be driven solely by a religious itinerary, but will also be meant to stimulate politicl talks between Israelis and Palestinians, with presidents from both places having formally invited him to the region on recent Vatican visits.
Pope Francis enjoys a particular influence because of the enormous enthusiasm he has generated around the world with his inclusive and unifiying messages. The crowd that braved the cold to witness his Urbi et Orbi address on Christmas Day illustrates that his charisma and popularity have made him a powerful international leader. The close relations he has built with other religions — replicating on a global scale the ecumenical ties he built in the Argentine capital as archbishop of Buenos Aires — are among his many assets.
It’s an understatement, but it would be fair to say it’s been a good start.