People wait for Pope Francis in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

The "Off Road" Pope Concerned Only About Humanity

Aura Miguel, a Vatican correspondent for Lisbon’s Rádio Renascença, accompanied Francis in his visit to Uganda, Kenya and the Central African Republic. In this interview she offers a reflection on what she experienced during those days.
Paolo Perego

Her voice is weary. “I can’t take it any more. The air conditioning and the sudden changes in temperature.And then talking for five days...” Following Pope Francis on his African journey was truly intense and demanding. Aura Maria Vistas Miguel, Vatican correspondent forthe Portuguese Rá- dio Renascença, has followed the life of the Popes and their magisterium and journeys for years. Last week she and other colleagues from around the world accompanied Francis to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. “I was very struck. I still have to ‘absorb’ all I saw,” she said as she was waiting for her flight to Lisbon.

What did strike you?
When you arrive you are shocked by what you see.You left a “comfortable” life to which you are accustomed, but already as your plane descends to land at the first stop you begin to see brown spots, and slowly you realize that they are houses. The slums.And you think that those shacks of Nairobi house 65% of the population of the city! Then you see them close up: it’s a punch in the stomach. How can one live there? According to our criteria it is scandalous. It is not that I have never seen a shantytown. Generally when we travel we come across these realities. But we often take no note of them because we are interested in other things, especially if we are traveling as tourists, going to see what interests us. We are distracted in front of what, instead, is there. Here, on the contrary, Francis shifted the center of his papacy to make the world see this humanity full of value, one of which few people take note, and many pretend does not exist. So you find yourself finally looking at these places and asking yourself how it could be possible to do something, to change all this. But the poverty is so immense that I thought, “There is nothing to be done...” Instead Francis went there, as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” to say exactly the opposite. He went right there in the middle of it, with the heat, the dust, the trips, the mosquitoes, the danger of attacks... He was only interested in that humanity, in people who have my same dignity, with the only difference being that they do not forget it, as they are forced to live in the essential. This sight, already difficult to understand in Kenya and Uganda, was even more visible and dramatic in The Central African Republic. Why? Because you see the shantytowns of Nairobi and you think, “What’s worse than Kibera, a slum of a million people?” There is nothing worse. Then you arrive in Bangui, where there is violence, war, devastation, and at every corner you see what those people are living in all its drama. What a repercussion when you think that Francis chose to open the Holy Door there, where many had even advised him not to go because it would be difficult to guarantee his safety. It was true: tanks, UN peacekeepers, incredible protection... The hotel where we were seemed like a bunker. In these neighbourhoods, as soon as we arrived, people poured out into the streets, with an indescribable joy. But what are they doing? It’s something out of this world for me. Their hearts were more on fire than mine.It was so powerful that it made them go out on the street, notwithstanding the danger, with the curfew, after sunset and without lights, at the risk of being killed.And yet it was worth it because their heart desired someone who spoke the truth to them.

And then the Holy Door…
But why in Bangui? He called it the “spiritual capital of mercy,” and I thought “Come on. Today Bangui could be the capital of human disaster.” With four hundred thousand refugees, ten thousand child soldiers, a million and a half malnourished: how could he call it the “spiritual capital”?Instead, this was a sign of what his pontificate is, another help to understand where to look, that our small space of “daily comfort” is not so important.The truth passes through something else, through the things that most correspond to the heart, and perhaps he had to go this way to the extreme periphery to help us understand what is essential.

He seemed very happy to be there....
Yes, serene. More than on other occasions, during other trips.InAfrica there is no space for subjectivism that measures and weights. For those people everything is a question of life and death, and the things that concern life you recognize immediately.ThePope’s insistence on the peripheries is also for this. He goes to the periphery of the world to make us understand mercy. The Central African Republic needs forgiveness. But so do we. It’s the same.

What does education have to do with all this?
It was a leitmotiv in many of his “African” speeches. Because he is realistic. Also others who speak aboutAfrica underline it, but he is an “off-roader.” He goes in the fields where others don’t go, to accompany the sadness, the anguish, the joy and the human hope. But then, he is also the bearer of a proposal of growth of humanity, and this also passes through education, orin other words, in the awareness that in order to change and grow, one must relate with others. There is no other possibility, and this is all the more so in poor countries where there are conflicts of every type; this is the priority. Education and respect for others, which go together. There, this was clear. He spoke about tribalism, terrorism. Francis is phenomenal. He brings speeches from Rome, then, above all when he meets young people, he sets them aside and starts to dialogue in a real way with them. He listens to them, asks them questions, starts from what they say to explain things.A catechist.

So then, he is a Pope of the young people, not only of the peripheries?
He has always been this way. Certainly, people read him as a Pope of the poor.They always try to classify him, to put him in a framework. “The Pope of poverty.” Instead, he defies every framework. He is a Pope given to the world to convert, to change, everyone. Even us who think we know and have seen everything.There is a freshness in facing subjects that we already know, and through him, we discover that we haven’t understood anything. There is nothing taken for granted. He does this with the youth, with this vivacity, but he does it with everyone. It is a sight to behold.