That’s the basically facetious question I found myself contemplating over the weekend, watching Pope Francis in action over Christmas, who once again in some ways channeled his inner Grinch.
We’re so accustomed to seeing the buoyant, beaming Francis in public, hugging the elderly, kissing babies, slapping backs and issuing memorable one-liners, that it’s always arresting to catch him in those more somber moments, when his aim isn’t so much to buy the world a coke but to wake it up.
As things generally work out, I typically spend the holidays in Rome and end up doing some of CNN’s coverage of the big days, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This was the fourth Christmas over which Francis has presided as pope, and it never fails to strike my hosts on CNN how different his holiday messages generally are from other major world leaders.
The headlines usually work like this:
- “Queen wishes all a merry Christmas”
- “US President wishes happiness to all families”
- “UN Secretary General hopes for peace over holidays”
- “Pope condemns consumerism, greed, child soldiers, war in Syria and a ‘throw-away’ culture”
Typically, the pontiff’s Christmas rhetoric is strong, concrete, and a bit plaintive, apparently calculated to get his listeners to connect the dots between the birth of Christ in a poor family on the margins of a great empire, a savior who would first have to suffer and die, and the often harrowing realities of today’s world.
That was certainly the spirit of Pope Francis at Christmastime 2016.
On Christmas Eve, Francis began by recalling the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth, and then said, “In order to discover him, we need to go there, where he is. We need to bow down, humble ourselves, make ourselves small. The child who is born challenges us: he calls us to leave behind fleeting illusions and go to the essence, to renounce our insatiable claims, to abandon our endless dissatisfaction and sadness for something we will never have.”
Not exactly Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” in terms of setting a feel-good holiday tone.
The pontiff then ticked off a series of ways in which the story of the Christ child should inspire concern for today’s children, including children found “hiding underground to escape bombardment, on the pavements of a large city, at the bottom of a boat overladen with immigrants.
“Let us allow ourselves to be challenged by the children who are not allowed to be born, by those who cry because no one satiates their hunger, by those who do not have toys in their hands, but rather weapons.”
Again, not quite the words you’d set to “Winter Wonderland.”
Sunday brought the traditional Christmas Urbi et Orbi address, preceded by the usual mustering of both the Swiss Guards and the Vatican Gendarmes, the playing of anthems, and various formations by the troops. Once again, Francis came off as restrained and serious, without much by way of hamming it up with the crowd.
(One has the impression at times that for a man who lived through a military dictatorship, this sort of military ceremony always leaves him a bit cold.)
When it came time to deliver the address, Francis didn’t pull any punches, making direct reference to the war in Syria, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the on-again, off-again peace process in Colombia, the scourge of terrorism in Nigeria and elsewhere, and several other dark clouds on the global horizon.
It’s noteworthy that virtually all the hot spots cited by the pontiff are areas where there are signs of some hands-on diplomacy of his own, from his relentless campaign for humanitarian corridors amid the Syrian conflict to recently assembling both Colombia’s president and his main political rival in the Vatican to try to revive the peace negotiations.
“Peace to exiles, migrants and refugees, to all those who in our day are subject to human trafficking,” Francis said on Sunday.
“Peace to the peoples who suffer because of the economic ambitions of the few, because of the sheer greed and the idolatry of money, which leads to slavery. Peace to those affected by social and economic unrest, and to those who endure the consequences of earthquakes or other natural catastrophes.
“Peace on earth to men and women of goodwill, who work quietly and patiently each day, in their families and in society, to build a more humane and just world, sustained by the conviction that only with peace is there the possibility of a more prosperous future for all,” he said.
The bottom line is that Francis seems content at Christmastime to leave the manufacturing of good cheer to others, viewing the global interest his holiday messages always attract as a moral and social teaching moment, not a photo-op.
Upon reflection, however, that probably doesn’t quite cast Francis as the Grinch.
Rather than trying to steal Christmas, perhaps what he’s trying to do is to give the world back the real spirit of Christmas, as it was originally intended to be.