During his recent visit to Brazil, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, did something unprecedented. The Pontiff met with a representative of the Candomblé faith, the first time a Catholic Pope has ever done so.
“At odds since colonial times, Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions have embarked on a process of mutual acceptance. Pope Francis added words and gestures to this reconciliation of two groups that share a common interest: confronting the growth of evangelical and neo-Pentecostal churches. The photo of Francis wearing a “cocar” headdress given to him by Ubiraí, a Pataxó Indian, went around the world. Ivanir dos Santos, a “babalawo” or priest of the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion, was also received by the pope in the Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janeiro as part of the rapprochement between the Catholic Church and other creeds and cultures during his Jul. 22-28 visit to Brazil. ‘For the first time, a representative of candomblé was received by a pope. This is unprecedented,’ dos Santos, a member of Brazil’s Committee Against Religious Intolerance (CCIR), told IPS.”
Pope Francis went even farther, he embraced the secular state as a vehicle for religious tolerance.
“Peaceful coexistence between different religions is favoured by the laicity of the state, which, without assuming any one confessional stance, respects and values the presence of the religious factor in society.”
This is a major tonal shift from the papacy of Benedict XVI, who avoided meeting with “non-institutional” (ie Santeria/Lukumi) faiths in Cuba, wouldn’t deign to a meeting with Vodun leaders in its birthplace, and was openly critical of Franciscan interfaith efforts when they included African traditional faiths, buying into Catholic hardliner anti-interfaith propaganda. Further, he had a combative relationship with what he called “aggressive” secularism. So these moves, even if largely cosmetic, resonate strongly to non-Christians watching to see how Francis sets the tone for his church.
“Between selfish indifference and violent protest there is always another possible option, and the key to developing a just and fair society as a leader is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue” – Pope Francis
For non-Christians, it also has the effect of humanizing the religious “other.” If the Pope embraces reconciliation with Candomblé, with real, human, interface between leaders, why shouldn’t Catholics also embrace practitioners of Vodou? Or indigenous African religions? Or modern Paganism, for that matter? Indeed, the Pope’s new attitude is needed more now than ever before. We live in a world where human beings, fueled by religious beliefs, are persecuting and killing one another in increasingly disturbing incidents. What better time for a Pope to emphatically embrace an interfaith mission? A mission that had been blunted during the Papacy of Benedict, but now, hopefully, will bear new fruit.