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True Allegiance?

The night before the new sovereign was anointed, I joined a “Mass for the Coronation of King Charles III & Queen Consort Camilla” held in every parish in England and Wales at the request of the Catholic bishops. We prayed for the newly minted if aging monarch—that he “may continue to grow in every virtue…be preserved from every harm”—and learned that through this eucharistic celebration we pledged our loyalty to him. This was not so unusual, our parish priest reminded us in his homily, for “Catholics have a very strong loyalty to the Crown.” Even in the dark days between 1534 and 1680, he added, the Catholic martyrs of the Reformation period went to the gallows expressing their affection for, and loyalty to, the monarchs who had put them to death.

True, of course; but the fact that this had to be pointed out showed how unusual this was. The post-Communion hymn was weirdest of all. Not everyone was happy to sing “God save our gracious King.” “Never once heard the national anthem sung in a Catholic church, in a lifetime of going to Catholic churches in every part of the UK,” tweeted Raymond Friel OBE, who runs Caritas, the official national body coordinating Catholic charities. It wasn’t personal; Friel had been awarded the OBE by King Charles. But he spoke for many Catholics when he said he was “uneasy at the prospect.”

These feelings never arose at the last coronation seventy years ago, when Catholics were offside spectators. In those days, a Catholic could not step into a Protestant church, let alone join a coronation service. The only non-Anglican minister in Westminster Abbey in 1953 was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, who gave Elizabeth II the Bible on which she swore her oaths. Now the Catholic Church in England and Wales is one of the twenty-seven “privileged bodies” allowed to offer a “loyal address” to the monarch, as Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, did at King Charles’s accession last year. And he was in the Abbey on May 6, startling in scarlet, alongside various ecumenical representatives—Greek Orthodox, Free Churches, and so on—to pray over the newly anointed and crowned monarch, that God pour on him “the riches of his grace” and “keep you in his holy fear.” Nichols was the first Catholic cardinal at the coronation of a monarch in these islands since Cardinal David Beaton presided at that of the infant Queen Mary of Scots in 1543. And Nichols wasn’t the only one. The Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was representing Pope Francis, who had earlier gifted fragments of the True Cross for a “Cross of Wales” commissioned by King Charles for the Coronation.

It is hard to understand all this without the Queen’s 2012 address to faith leaders at the start of her Diamond Jubilee. The enlargement of the established church’s tent took place gradually during her reign, but this was the moment establishment itself was redefined. Standing in Lambeth Palace alongside the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, she told leaders of all the faiths and denominations that the point of this church recognized by the law as official “is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions” but “to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” The Church of England, she said, “has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely,” and added: “Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society—more and more in active cooperation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

The significance of the remarks was mostly missed, but the faith leaders there took note, and the coronation service on May 6 was its fruit. Given that the 1688 Oath of Succession and 1701 Act of Settlement were intended precisely “to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions,” this was an ingenious reframing, one that allowed both church and monarchy to find a raison d’être and shared mission at a time when both institutions look ever more anomalous.

A liberal national church whose liturgies are rare and sparsely attended has taken on more and more of the role of an NGO, in partnership with other churches and faiths.

As a narrative it just about works because it reflects reality. In secular Britain (the 2021 Census revealed that a third of the population has no faith at all), a liberal national church whose liturgies are rare and sparsely attended has taken on more and more of the role of an NGO, in partnership with other churches and faiths. The Church of England does this well, taking advantage of its physical omnipresence and relations with power brokers to host food banks, support clusters of hosts housing Ukrainian refugees, run groups for the elderly and families with children, and so on. In times of crisis—Covid, floods, a local tragedy—the church offers organizational heft and armies of the willing, and a gentle, accessible form of religiosity (candles and hymns) for those who need it.

At the same time, the monarchy has itself become more and more like an über-NGO, a convenor of charitable and volunteer organizations, and a promoter of loving service. This shift is also a response to changing times. Even after the royals lost real power in 1688, they could still count on deference, both to their position at the apex of a social hierarchy defined by bloodlines and heritage, and to their role as defenders of a Christian morality defined by the Church of England. That deference was still in place in cap-doffing, churchgoing 1953, but has now all but vanished. What ties people to the crown these days is something far more vague and sentimental: a reassuring sense that it safeguards the national mythos, combined with affection and grateful admiration for royals who incarnate a spirit of service, as Elizabeth II did, and Charles III does.  

This was the idea of royalty at the heart of the coronation service, which began with the king being welcomed by a child to the Abbey “in the name of the King of Kings.” “In his name, and after his example,” Charles declared, “I come not to be served, but to serve.” In his brief homily, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said Jesus Christ “creates the unchangeable law of good authority that with the privilege of power comes the duty to serve.” He described service as “love in action” and said it could be seen in care for the poor and conservation of the natural world. “We have seen those priorities in the life of duty lived by our king,” he said.

At his touching tribute in the coronation concert the evening after the Abbey service, the Prince of Wales sounded like the executive of a major charity. William praised his “Pa” for his environmental advocacy and for the Prince’s Trust, which “has supported over a million young people, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, to realize their ambitions.” The King, he added, “has always understood that people of all faiths, all backgrounds, and all communities, deserve to be celebrated and supported”—precisely what Queen Elizabeth had said about the purpose of the established Church back in 2012.


The English genius for breathing new life into ancient institutions means now that church and monarchy share an identical mission as hosts of philanthropic activity in partnership with faiths and civil society generally. But then, into this irenicism and liberality, the coronation oath sworn by King Charles III at the Abbey landed like an unexploded bomb. Enshrined by an Act of Parliament in 1688 after the Glorious Revolution, the oath binds the king to the defense of the Reformation. Instead of the previous vague promise to protect bishops and churches, every monarch from 1689 has to declare himself “a faithful Protestant” who will defend “enactments which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne,”, while promising to uphold “the true profession of the Gospel and the Protestant reformed religion established by law.”

The confessional state was enshrined because Britain felt beleaguered and demanded uniformity in religion for national security. The first to take the 1688 oath, William and Mary, did so after the anointed king, James II, the last Catholic monarch, was overthrown by Protestants who feared a lifting of the penal laws. Later, the only justification for George I acceding to the throne in 1714 was that he was Queen Anne’s most senior Protestant relative. George was the first of the house of Hanover, the current royal family, and ever since then the British monarchy has been legitimated not just by bloodline but also by belief in the Thirty-Nine Articles. The current prime minister may be a practising Hindu, but the monarch must be Protestant.

The oath is, obviously, anomalous and offensive—and not just to Catholics. Many Anglicans do not see themselves as Protestant. The Irish, Scots, and Welsh are excluded. And it is hypocritical: King Charles, who declared himself in the oath a “faithful Protestant,” is spiritually closer to Greek Orthodoxy than to Anglicanism. So why not just remove it and replace it with an oath more in keeping with Queen Elizabeth’s redefinition of the Church of England’s role? Because that could only be done by an Act of Parliament, and the debate would open more than one can of worms. The appetite for a godless republic may be growing, but it is still a minority, and—so runs the prevailing view—it is best to leave well enough alone.

The appetite for a godless republic may be growing, but it is still a minority, and—so runs the prevailing view—it is best to leave well enough alone.

So while Charles was stuck with saying the oath—his expression did not conceal his distaste—Archbishop Welby tried to draw the sting out of it by explaining to him and to us that it meant not what it said but what his mother had said it meant. “Your Majesty, the Church established by law, whose settlement you will swear to maintain, is committed to the true profession of the Gospel, and in so doing, will seek to foster an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely.”

But is this shrewd re-interpretation enough to justify the enthusiasm for the coronation by the Catholic bishops? The unease at the new coziness could be seen, in the run-up to May 6, in the controversy over the so called “Homage of the People.” The idea had been to give space in the service for ordinary people—not just nobles—to declare their allegiance: Archbishop Welby would “call upon” all persons of goodwill “to make their homage, in heart and voice, to their undoubted king,” using the words in the ordo: “I swear I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty.” But after the ordo was published a week before the coronation, many felt pressured, and said they would defy the call. Among the critics was the Dominican writer and preacher, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP—tapped by the Pope to lead a retreat for members of the synod in early October—who told the Times of London that it could remind Catholics “of an earlier call for allegiance to the monarch during the Reformation, when failure to conform led to torture and execution.” In the tradition of soggy Anglicanism, Welby dampened down the words on the day of the coronation, now “inviting those who wished to do so” to reflect silently or to use the words in the ordo.

The Catholic bishops, meanwhile, have done their own reframing, reminding Catholics that the coronation service, with its roots in antiquity, is essentially a sacramental liturgy, similar to an ordination, one that was Catholic (five hundred years) for longer than it has been Protestant (four hundred). Catholic participation at the service, as well as the inclusion of William Byrd’s sixteenth-century Gloria, written for recusants, represented a “coming together again” of elements that had become divided, said Cardinal Nichols. He told the Tablet all this was “a reciprocal ecumenism, an exchange of gifts.” The new king, he added, had the highest regard for Catholics, had met Pope Francis twice, and had been at the canonization in Rome in 2019 for St. John Henry Newman. Nichols acknowledged that the words of the coronation oath were “sharp,” but he believed the king had set “his wholeheartedly accepted constitutional duty into the wider context of our contemporary nation.”


British Catholics are mostly happy with this reset. As the coronation showed, the monarchy is one the few things that works well in the UK. Some also sense an opportunity. You could hear it in my parish the day after the coronation, when the parish priest pointed out that its ancient sacramentality was probably more intelligible to Catholics than to most people watching.

It was true that, while media coverage focused on the pageantry and pomp, the Shakesperian theatricality of it all, the angelic music and the bling (the swords, the orb, the bracelets, etc.), the heart of the service was not well understood. It was easier, perhaps, for Catholics to see that the real action was in “that strange moment when Charles, shielded by embossed screens, was anointed by the archbishop of Canterbury with holy oil poured from an eagle-shaped ampulla to the sounds of Zadok the Priest,” as the Guardian put it, describing the coronation as “pure theatre.”

But it wasn’t, even if the crowning added nothing at all to the legal powers or authority that came to Charles when his mother died. The coronation service was, above all, a liturgy with a sacrament at its center. Disrobed to his shirt, the King was consecrated for service, especially of the poor. The previous archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said it best when he described Elizabeth II’s anointing, which she herself had often referred to as an experience of light and peace. It was, Williams said, “a gift of the Holy Spirit to hold a fragile human person in faithfulness to this place where community can gather for restoration and renewal.”

It may be an unholy mess of entangled traditions, of shame as well as glory, that Britain keeps stitched together out of fear of something worse. But because church and crown still believe that authority is consecrated for service in a sacramental liturgy, I was happy on May 6 to stand in front of the TV, hand held aloft, to pay “true allegiance to our undoubted king.”


King Charles’s Traditionalism

Although the coronation of King Charles III followed ancient precedent, the new king sometimes looks quite modern. As Prince of Wales, he was famous for his environmentalism—an apparently very modern stance. What could be more up-to-date than going green? Who is more hip than Greta Thunberg? In reality, however, his views are even more anachronistic than the ceremonies in which he just took part.

The king’s environmentalism derives from his support for a little-known philosophy, Guénonian Traditionalism, that is promoted in the United States by George Washington University professor emeritus Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian American scholar and environmentalist whose work has had a significant impact on the British king. For both Nasr and the king, the fundamental problem is that modern Westerners have lost touch with the spiritual tradition that informed the past, and that is why they despoil their surroundings. The solution is not just technical, but a return to the values and practices of earlier periods. Two questions arise: what exactly are these traditional values and practices, and to what extent are they compatible with the values and practices of liberal democracy?

First, however, an account of Charles’s environmentalism, which covers the built as well as the natural environment. It first became a topic of interest in 1983 when the then Prince of Wales described a planned extension to the National Gallery in London as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” The design of the proposed building had just won a national competition organized by the British architectural establishment, so the prince’s dissenting view was initially ridiculed by the arbiters of taste. Some also wondered whether it was proper for the heir to the throne to be intervening, even indirectly, in the process of granting construction permits. But it turned out that the British public mostly agreed with the prince’s architectural views, and ridicule slowly turned to respect. The term “carbuncle” is now used in the United Kingdom to refer to modern architecture more often than to real boils.

Even those too young to remember 1983 are familiar with the Duchy Organic brand, which started life in 1990 as Duchy Originals, oaten “biscuits” (cookies) grown organically on the prince’s own lands in the Duchy of Cornwall, and now sold at Waitrose supermarkets.

The connection between Charles’s architectural criticism and his organic foods is explained in a book published by the prince in 2010, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World. To solve the environmental crisis and restore harmony to the planet, he argued, we need a new way of looking at things. Without a shift in perspective, any good done will remain isolated and marginal. Real improvement depends on viewing the relationship between people and nature in terms of “traditional philosophy.”

Prince Charles did not cite sources for these ideas—Harmony was not that sort of book—but his arguments closely resemble those made since 1966 by one of America’s most creative Muslim thinkers, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Nasr, who was born in Iran but educated at MIT and Harvard, has lived in the United States since the Iranian Revolution, which—ironically—he both opposed and helped produce. He opposed it because he was close to the Shah’s wife, Empress Farah, and because he saw the revolutionaries as untraditional; but his criticism of modernity and emphasis on traditional spirituality helped turn many young Iranians’ attention toward Islam.

For both Nasr and the king, the fundamental problem is that modern Westerners have lost touch with the spiritual tradition that informed the past, and that is why they despoil their surroundings.

Nasr was not just a royalist, however. He was one of the earliest religious philosophers and certainly the first Muslim to focus on the environmental crisis that was then becoming apparent. He was preceded by only a small handful of Christian thinkers, principally H. Richard Niebuhr in the 1930s and Joseph Sittler in the 1950s. Nasr argued, as Prince Charles would later echo, that the fundamental problem was the “alienation of man from nature” that resulted from modernity’s loss of traditional metaphysical knowledge—that is, from the “secularization of the Cosmos.”

Unlike Prince Charles, Nasr does cite sources. His thought is a development of the “Traditionalist” philosophy espoused in the 1920s by an obscure French philosopher, René Guénon. Guénon held that there had once been a “primordial tradition”—philosophical, religious, and spiritual—and that this primordial tradition survived as the esoteric core of all the world’s great religions. This idea had been around since the Renaissance, often known as the “perennial philosophy.” Prince Charles’s “traditional philosophy” is much the same as the perennial philosophy or primordial tradition.

Guénon argued that the primordial tradition was last widely known in the West among the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages. The loss of this primordial tradition is a defining characteristic of modernity. Modernity focuses on technological triumphs that are fundamentally unimportant, ignores all that is truly important, and values illusory ideals such as equality and individual freedom. The primordial tradition has nevertheless survived outside the West, according to Guénon, and in 1930 he emigrated from France to Egypt, spending the remainder of his life as a Muslim and a Sufi, following Islam’s esoteric spiritual tradition.

Nasr was the first to apply Guénon’s analysis to the environment. For Nasr, the loss of the primordial tradition in modernity led not only to prizing technological innovation above metaphysics, but also to the technological exploitation of the environment and a lack of respect for nature and appreciation of natural beauty.

It is not clear whether the then prince was influenced by Nasr directly or adopted these perspectives from others in the group of Guénonian Traditionalists to which Nasr belonged. Three leading Traditionalists and one leading Traditionalist sympathizer were English, and all four were friends of the prince. The most important was Martin Lings, a scholar who as a young man had shifted his focus from C.S. Lewis, with whom he had studied, to Guénon, who he assisted during the latter’s last years in Cairo. Lings had also become Muslim and followed the Sufi path. He was the leader of the Traditionalist community in England, wrote books on Islam, Sufism, and the tradition, and regularly visited the prince. The sympathizer was a poet, Kathleen Raine—an expert on William Blake, W.B. Yeats, and Thomas Taylor—who led the Temenos Academy, an influential spiritual think tank where leading Traditionalists often spoke. The other two Englishmen were the composer Sir John Tavener, a convert to the Orthodox Church and composer of “The Protecting Veil” and “Song for Athene,” and the artist and architect Keith Critchlow, who wrote on “sacred geometry.” All were close to the prince.

Prince Charles’s “traditional philosophy” is much the same as the perennial philosophy or primordial tradition.

Prince Charles was more than a passive recipient of these ideas. He modified them by, for example, tackling head-on Traditionalists’ insistence that modernity is purely bad. This is clearly not the case, and Prince Charles admitted as much, accepting that modern life is easier and more comfortable than medieval life. Prince Charles also differed from most other Traditionalists in that he did not just write about Traditionalist ideas, but also held the power to implement some of them. In addition to his architectural interventions and Duchy Organic foods, he has supported Raine’s Temenos Academy, and an academy founded by Critchlow for teaching traditional art, The Prince's Foundation School of Traditional Arts. And then there is Poundbury, a “traditional” town started by the prince in 1993 and due for completion in 2025 with an expected population of 5,800 people. Absolutely no carbuncles, and respect for sacred geometry. Again, many have ridiculed the project, but time seems to be proving the prince right.

Yet there is a dark side to Traditionalism. As well as inspiring both Nasr’s support of the Shah and some young Iranians’ turn to Islam, Traditionalism’s critique of modernity has inspired political actors from Julius Evola and Aleksander Dugin to Steve Bannon. Bannon’s role in securing the election of President Trump is well known, while Dugin’s role in inspiring the Russian invasion of Ukraine is contested. Evola is less well known today than either Bannon or Dugin, but was very well known in Italy in the 1970s, when his followers took direct action against modernity and its illusions by planting bombs that killed and injured many people. There are no signs that King Charles follows this stream of political thought, and he may not even be aware of it. But Traditionalism is not just about organic agriculture, the extraordinarily spiritual compositions of Tavener, and the Sufi spirituality of Guénon, Lings, and Nasr. It also sees liberal democracy as a modern aberration and regrets the loss of a hierarchy in which traditional sacred authority derived from a priestly caste, from which it passed to a warrior ruling caste, and only from there to the bourgeoisie and the people. This analysis can be questioned on historical grounds, but it fits neatly with the Traditionalist world view.

It is hard to predict the extent to which King Charles will continue to promote Traditionalist thought, projects, and perspectives. In his first major speech to the British nation after the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II, he said that because of his new duties, he would have to spend less time on some of the causes he had supported in the past. Some read this as a sign he would follow the example set by the previous monarch, who, throughout her reign, never said anything even mildly interesting in public. This approach worked well, helping her navigate the massive social and political changes that took place during her long reign, which started in the last days of British imperial power and pomp, and ended with Brexit and Boris Johnson.

After succeeding to the throne, King Charles has indeed said very little that could be construed as controversial, beyond the “Dear, oh dear,” with which he on one occasion greeted Prime Minister Liz Truss. But that greeting was not intended to be audible to the media, let alone recorded, and it was not really that controversial, since Truss’s difficulties were by then very clear to all. She resigned twelve days later.

A British king has many ways of affecting events, mostly not public. While the king’s constitutional powers are so limited that they have been almost entirely eliminated, few will turn down an invitation to tea with him, and few will completely ignore what he then says. The king may not have any of the power that Guénon associated with the warrior caste, but he retains another sort of authority. Even if he is not a priest, there is still something sacred about his position.

‘The Gospel Is a Social Gospel’

The idea that churches must be involved in political struggles for justice and peace to be faithful to the Gospel is disputed in every generation. Those who affirm it are always a minority. Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist icon of the Social Gospel movement, refused for most of his career to employ the term “Social Gospel.” There is no legitimately Christian non-social Gospel, he protested; why should he concede otherwise by adding a redundant adjective? Rauschenbusch bowed to convention only near the end of his life, in 1917, when he lamented that a non-social Gospel was the norm; those, like him, who dissented from that norm had to wear a special name.

This issue played out very similarly in Black churches, despite all that was different in the founding and history of Black American churches. The Black Church was born liberationist, hearing a message of freedom and equality in the Gospel that was not what was preached to enslaved Black people. Black churches had to deal with the hostility and oppression of the dominant white society, lacking any choice in the matter. But even in Black churches, those who preached social-justice activism were always a minority, even in the heyday of the civil-rights movement.

The Black social gospel paved the way for the civil-rights movement by raising up a luminous line of prophetic spiritual leaders, providing the social-justice theology that the movement preached and sang. Today, the tradition of prophetic Black faith that called for a new abolitionism in the 1880s and fueled the civil-rights movement remains the moral epicenter of the social-justice movement in the United States. It sustains this standing on the strength of its unique capacity to elevate compelling spiritual leaders in every generation. Last October I wrote about one of them for Commonweal: U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. United Church of Christ pastor Traci Blackmon, the subject of this article, and Disciples of Christ pastor William J. Barber II, the subject of my next article, stand out in a crowded field.

Blackmon grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s, integrating an exclusive private high school with her presence. From fourth grade to college she was the only Black student in the room; meanwhile, from fourth grade to seminary she didn’t have a single Black teacher. In her sophomore year of high school, she toured Ivy League schools; in her junior year the tour consisted of elite Southern schools. She applied to Princeton, Yale, Swarthmore, Duke, Emory, Vanderbilt, and Birmingham-Southern, and was admitted to all. A Harvard recruiter came to her school; Blackmon, feeling good about her record, thought why not—Harvard had not appealed to her during her sophomore tour, but why pass up the pitch?

Blackmon went to hear the recruiter, who told the crowd that Harvard was extremely selective, the odds of admission were terrible, but good luck. Blackmon felt nauseated, not planning to meet with the recruiter. But at the reception he headed straight for her. She listened with all the politeness she could muster as he told her not to worry about her grades. If she maintained a C average at this high school, she was sure to be admitted to Harvard. Blackmon was devastated. This guy knew nothing about her—nothing of her skills, achievements, awards, grades, or SAT scores. All he knew was that she was Black at an elite school, so she should ignore the admission speech. Blackmon absorbed that nothing she could ever achieve at Harvard would make this recruiter see her. Her race alone disqualified her from being a real Harvard student; she could only be a pretend one. She knew that Harvard didn’t deserve her, yet the episode stung her. Many years later she recalled: “The words of that arrogant, presumptuous recruiter wounded my heart but he did not shape my identity. Nothing about me is defined by that moment.” She passed up the other elite schools too, enrolling instead at nearby Birmingham-Southern College.

There she earned a bachelor of science degree in nursing in 1985 and embarked on a twenty-five-year career as a registered nurse. In her early nursing career, Blackmon focused on cardiac care; later, she focused on mobile health care in underserved communities. She developed a mobile faith-based outreach program called “Healthy Mind, Body, and Spirit” that changed health outcomes in impoverished areas. To Blackmon, health care was very much a ministry, but it also drew her into African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church ministry, which led her to seminary. For nine years she served in a variety of ministerial assignments in the AME Church, eventually studying at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, from which she graduated in 2009 with a master of divinity degree. That year, she transferred to the United Church of Christ (UCC) to facilitate her call as the first female pastor in the 159-year history of Christ the King UCC.

The Black Church was born liberationist, hearing a message of freedom and equality in the Gospel that was not what was preached to enslaved Black people.

Christ the King was a large building in Florissant, Missouri, with a proud history and very few members. It was struggling to keep the lights on. It managed to pay the required income of a UCC pastor only because it had some longtime members living in wealthier neighborhoods who still made the drive to Florissant. Blackmon said this was not a sustainable model, or anything with which she could identify. If the congregation was going to survive, it had to become a church of its poor Black community, not a relic of its white past propped up by suburbanites. Blackmon developed neighborhood service programs that did not require church membership. The church grew modestly and she felt encouraged.


On August 9, 2014, Blackmon got a phone call from someone who told her that in Ferguson, three miles away, an unarmed eighteen-year-old Black man had been gunned down in the street by police and was lying prone on the pavement.

Michael Brown’s body lay uncovered on the street for four hours. His blood poured onto the pavement. Blackmon plunged into the explosion of grief, rage, trauma, and violence that erupted in Ferguson. She spoke to the moment, decrying the eagerness of white Americans to react hysterically to the presence of a teenage Black man. She stressed that many had been killed like Brown. Two more—Ezell Ford and Kajieme Powell—were killed shortly afterward only a few miles from the site of Brown’s death.

Why did Ferguson spark a historic eruption? Blackmon believed it was Brown’s blood oozing for hours on the street, making a statement about the value that America places on Black life. She said Brown’s blood exposed the eagerness of white Americans to regard a Black teenager as an “other” to be feared. His blood displayed “the pervasive assumption of guilt that is the black man’s burden in America.” It cried out against the racism that criminalizes and dehumanizes Black bodies. It unveiled the chasm “that exists between a disenfranchised young generation and a disconnected church.” It showed how race, poverty, and hopelessness intersect on American streets. It provided “needed commentary on the self-mutilating, self-annihilating behaviors that have infected our communities of color.” Above all, Blackmon said, the blood of Michael Brown exposed the insidious effects of racism “that are intrinsic to the very fiber of our nation’s being.”

Blackmon was a beacon during a period when many clergy fretted about the hard things that Black Lives Matter said about church leaders. To her, there was no question about showing up and bearing witness. She was going to do it, and who she was had been settled long ago. She said she had never known the Gospel outside of justice work. Justice work is essential to the Gospel, so showing up at Ferguson was part of her ministry, not something extra. She found that being a UCC pastor was a huge advantage in the Ferguson moment. Blackmon called pastors across the entire gamut of local Christian and religious communities. It occurred to her that two hundred pastors from many different denominations would make a greater impact than two hundred members of a big downtown congregation.

At the first such gathering at Christ the King Church, the first thing Blackmon did was ask the clergy to stand. The sanctuary was packed with them. Blackmon reflected that only her scrappy, small, liberal congregation and denomination could have convened this diverse crowd of white mainline Protestants, Black mainline Protestants, Black and Hispanic Pentecostals and Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, gay and gender-nonconforming congregations, white Pentecostals and Evangelicals, Unitarian Universalists, and others. It was the small, open, and affirming UCC that made these disparate groups feel welcome and safe.

Justice work is essential to the Gospel, so showing up at Ferguson was part of her ministry, not something extra.

Her speaking calendar exploded. The UCC was thrilled to be associated with Blackmon, and President Obama appointed her to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based Neighborhood Partnerships for the White House. Blackmon said the UCC is made for fights—fighting for justice, love, compassion, and equality. Her high position in the quintessential liberal denomination and her support of its liberal views on sexuality earned her a tag she hated—“progressive Christian.” Sometimes she ripped it off just after being introduced: “One of my pet peeves is when people describe me or others that I work with as being left, or being progressive, or being liberal. I don’t preach a progressive Gospel. I preach the Gospel. The Gospel is progressive. The Gospel is a social Gospel. The gospel is a liberating Gospel. And if, when you preach it, it does not do those things, it is not the Gospel.”


Donald Trump won the White House, and Blackmon shuddered at church audiences that just wanted to talk about Trump, Trump, Trump. Yes, some things must be said about Trump, she said. But the most important thing is that his presidency did not come from nowhere. Trump is a product of four hundred years of racism and a half-century of cunningly racist politics geared to destroy the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

On August 11 and 12, 2017, neo-Nazis and white nationalists staged a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, beginning with a march through the campus of the University of Virginia. Local and visiting clergy held a counter-protest worship service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, across the street from the university rotunda. Blackmon preached a barnburner of a sermon to an overflowing, high-spirited crowd. Three hundred white supremacists, marching two by two, approached the church with torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us! Blood and soil! You will not replace us! White lives matter!” There were flyers calling for a race war and flyers declaring that the white nationalists had come to take back their country. No one knew if the mob would invade the sanctuary, where the crowd sheltered in place, fearing the worst, until the mob finally returned to Nameless Field. Blackmon, on MSNBC, replied to the chants: “Are you kidding me? And this president wants to talk about revising history? Read some history. Black people built this country.” From Charlottesville, she traveled to a small evangelical college in Nebraska, not realizing that she was traumatized. Blackmon discovered this only when she found herself demanding to be moved to a hotel containing at least one or two Black people. She couldn’t stay in her room or go to sleep surrounded only by white people.

Often she spoke and marched alongside William J. Barber II. Every week on the road, someone chastised Blackmon, instructing her that the church should not be involved in politics. Sometimes, they opined that her approach to her job crossed the line. She replied that the line was real to her; she didn’t want the church to take positions on how people should vote. But the teaching of Jesus is quite specifically political, she argued. An apolitical Jesus is a fantasy or some kind of cover-up. When faced with a choice between Jesus and any American convention, she took Jesus every time. On the road, when teamed up with Barber, she has to say it differently if Barber gets the question first, because Barber has the same answer.

Blackmon contrasts the light of Epiphany that shines in the darkness and compels all persons forward in love with the fear-mongering hatred that erupted on Epiphany 2020—January 6. She watched in “horror and disbelief,” she recalls, as insurrectionist vigilantes stormed the gates of the Capitol, scaled walls, built gallows, and inflicted injuries and deaths, trying to thwart the peaceful transition of power, all of it spurred on by Trump’s “inflammatory lies” and the many public figures who endorse them. The vigilantes are gaining, she warns. Nineteen states have passed thirty-four laws restricting voting rights. On the other hand, twenty-five states have enacted fifty-four laws that expand voting access. January 6, 2020, was atrocious, to be sure, but on January 6, 2022, tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators gathered across the nation in more than 350 vigils.

Blackmon urges rally crowds and sanctuary gatherings to reject the current flood of legislation to ban books and teaching on America’s racial history: “It is the not seeing things through the lens of race that makes privilege invisible to whites.” “If we remain silent at a time such as this,” she says, “deliverance will arise from some other place but we, my friends, will be lost. Jesus stands at the door of everyone, and knocks, and hopes to gain entrance but also requires that we change, that we repent, that we do better.” Everything, she says, that has tried to kill her has failed, because love never dies: “Redemption is possible when we live out love. Let us learn from the tragedies of our past and move toward the light within each of us fueled by the everlasting power of love.”


A ‘Toxic Nucleus’ Within the Church

A little over three years ago, L’Arche International published its preliminary findings on allegations of sexual abuse and other transgressions against Thomas Philippe, OP, and Jean Vanier, the principal figures in the L’Arche movement. The organization noted at the time that “the stakes are high for L’Arche, following the death of its founder and revelations which mark a break in its history, there is a need to reread the past.... An in-depth study is to be carried out to gain a better understanding of the personality and input of Jean Vanier and the relationship dynamics at work between the founder and those who knew him.”

That in-depth study, “Abuse and Hold: An Investigation of Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier and L’Arche,” was released in January. It’s a nine-hundred-page document comprehensive in scope, scale, and methodology. Its main conclusion is made plain in the accompanying cover letter, in which L’Arche admits “our institutional responsibility for failing to spot these abuses, report them and forestall them. At the same time we feel that our founder’s adherence to the doctrines of Thomas Philippe and the reproduction of his practices, their concealment and the lies that followed, constitute a serious breach of trust towards L’Arche and its members.”

The commission that L’Arche charged to undertake the investigation consisted of six researchers from several disciplines: history, sociology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and theology. They were assisted in their work by a group of experts from diverse fields and positions of authority. The investigation covered the period from Vanier’s birth in Geneva in 1928 to his death in Trosly in 2019. The commissioners held 119 interviews with eighty-nine individuals and examined fifteen books written by Vanier in order to get as complete a picture as possible of the thinking behind his behavior, and they made clear that “by publicly reporting the results of its investigation, the to make available to all solid elements, rigorously sourced and cross-checked, capable of offering an enlightened understanding of the alleged facts.”

Understanding Vanier’s spiritual and sexual abuse of multiple women associated with L’Arche first requires underscoring his relationship with the controversial and disgraced Dominican Mariologist, Thomas Philippe. Philippe’s “Marian maximalism” originated in an intense experience in 1938 in a convent chapel in Rome in front of the fresco Mater Admirabilis, an affective experience of divine enrapture resulting in private revelations and mystical graces that would determine the direction of his theological thinking and ministry. It blurred the distinction between the mystical and the erotic, rationalized sexual behavior—often deviant and clothed in the language of Marian devotion—and facilitated his predation on young and vulnerable women, religious and secular, all behind a screen of avowed sanctity.

Vanier fell under Philippe’s influence almost from the moment he first met him in 1947. Throughout the 1950s, Vanier cemented his relationship and dependence on Thomas, initially as a student of his esoteric Thomism, but eventually as an initiate in his secret society of Gnostic libertines glossed as devout votaries of Mary and her son. No less a French Catholic luminary than Jacques Maritain judged Philippe’s Marian spirituality “mad,” writing in a letter to Charles Journet that his “mannerism of wanting to make the Holy Virgin her Son’s bride infuriates and shocks me.” As the L’Arche Report notes: “The mystique of T. Philippe is based in particular on the affirmation of incestuous sexual relations between Jesus and Mary during their earthly life and continuing in their heavenly life. This religious vocabulary encloses people in a gangue.”

Understanding Vanier’s spiritual and sexual abuse of multiple women associated with L’Arche first requires underscoring his relationship with the controversial and disgraced Dominican Mariologist, Thomas Philippe.

Philippe would actually be investigated by the Holy Office in 1956, found guilty of and condemned for sexually abusing women, compromising the sacrament of penance, and arranging for an abortion—all of which was camouflaged as mysticism. Vanier, however, saw the Vatican’s censure as an injustice, expressive of the Church’s blindness to the mystical genius of his “spiritual father” and issued only to assuage disgruntled Dominicans unhappy with Philippe’s teachings. He worked behind the scenes to enable the quiet and hidden flourishing of what the report commissioners identify as a “perverse mystico-sexual and toxic nucleus.” Philippe and Vanier were so deeply intertwined that in a 1975 document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith noting the punishment of Philippe “for serious offenses of a pseudo-mystical nature (di natura pseudo mystica),” Vanier is called “il piu fanatico dei discepoli P. Philippe (the most fanatical of Fr. Philippe’s disciples).” As late as 2009, Vanier recalled how “listening to him and in his presence, I had a taste for God, to love Jesus and Mary.... I felt transformed in his presence.... This shows how deeply Jesus used him to enter into me.”

Nevertheless, the L’Arche study makes a point of distancing the sins of the spiritual son from those of the father:

In Jean Vanier’s case, there was no perverse organization with the resulting pleasure of destroying, humiliating or reducing others to manipulated objects. He was, however, trapped by the absolutization of a Love that excluded him from any idea of Evil. He was a prisoner of his adoption of Thomas Philippe’s delusional ideas and system of abuse.

The study also makes clear that the abuse was not related to pedophilia; nor did it involve people with disabilities. The commissioners raise the issue of a possible homosexual relationship between Philippe and Vanier, but they conclude that homosexuality was not a defining feature of the abuse allegations.


Philippe’s perfidy was deep-seated, long-lasting, and intricate in its rationalization. Evidence of his behavior dates back to his collaboration with Mother Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus of the Nogent Carmel in the late 1940s. His sexual predations there and at other Carmel convents are chronicled at length not only in the L’Arche study, but also in the Vatican investigations, the archives of which were available to the commissioners. The sordid story reads like a mélange of the fiction and fact that you find in the notorious case of alleged demonic possession, collective perjury, and sexual hysteria in the French Ursuline convent of Loudun in 1632, with its seductive priest Urban Grandier, novelized by Aldous Huxley, rendered on the stage by playwright John Whiting, and filmed by Ken Russell.

Philippe was practiced and proficient in his operations, disguised as they were as mystical moments of grace. They were laced in the ascetical language of the Carmelite masters and embedded in a culture of secrecy and coded phrases—an enclave of elect intimacy that the commissioners call, using French writer André Malraux’s phrasing, “a little heap of secrets.”

The vulnerable women were drawn mostly from a socially elevated and well-educated sector, spiritually and sexually naïve, emotionally fragile, and utterly trusting. The principal members of the predatory cell included Philippe’s equally dissolute brother and fellow Dominican, Marie-Dominique—codenamed Did or Didier—as well as Anne de Rosanbo and Jacqueline d’Halluin. It is the latter who initiated Jean Vanier on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The vulnerable women were drawn mostly from a socially elevated and well-educated sector, spiritually and sexually naïve, emotionally fragile, and utterly trusting.

The sexual proclivities of the predators run the usual gamut, but in Jean Vanier’s case in particular they are often justified as chaste sexuality because of the absence of coitus. Vanier persistently, and tragically, furthered the mystic-erotic legacy of the Philippe brothers—their sister, Mother Cécile, a Dominican prioress, functioned as a religious Ghislaine Maxwell, servicing the sexual appetites of her siblings as well as herself—and in so doing Vanier enabled a psychologically crippling and spiritually depraved environment to continue.

This raises the pertinent question of how Vanier managed to function so freely and without suspicion for decades. The study establishes his flawed theology by examining his many books, orations, newsletters, publicly available correspondence, addresses to both religious and secular constituencies, and transcribed interviews. His exegesis of the Gospel of John is riddled with inaccuracies and eccentricities. On many points of theology he operates at best on the fringe of the ecclesial community. His spirituality of covenant and communion is interlaced with his peculiar nuptial fusions, and his enthusiastic incorporation into the patterns of his spiritual master betray his disturbing Gnostic tendencies.

The commissioners write that Vanier for “many years passed as a most saintly man, the living embodiment of the Gospel, a man whose charisma was there for all to see, a ‘starets,’ the lodestar of the Catholic renewal of John Paul II’s pontificate.” We now know that his strategy of holy self-effacement was really a concerted strategy of self-erasure.

Certainly, Vanier basked in the light of Catholic celebrity. And the ascendancy of the ecclesial communities that flourished during the Wojtyla papacy in no way diminished the special place in the spiritual constellation accorded L’Arche and its co-founder. However, many of the new communities—one indeed founded by Marie-Dominique Philippe, the Community of St. Jean—have had their share of scandals and are under Vatican investigation.

The commissioners do not hesitate, however, to remonstrate with the Vatican when they see egregious displays of official approbation:

Given the many people who suffered from Thomas Philippe’s spiritual and sexual abuse, directly or indirectly via followers who shared his delusion and reproduced his actions, and in the first instance his brother Marie-Dominque and Jean Vanier, this can be described as a perverse toxic nucleus within the Catholic Church. The photograph of these three men received by Pope John Paul II speaks volumes about their ability to infiltrate, seduce and deceive, whereas the Vatican was supposed to be aware. It also speaks volumes about the dysfunctions of the ecclesiastical institution.

Think Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement. The sexual crimes, predations, rapes, pedophiliac assaults, and emotional abuse inflicted on fellow Legionaries, seminarians, family members, and others by Maciel are a matter of record resulting in the end with his being sentenced to a life of prayer and penitence by Pope Benedict XVI. Various investigations and reports followed Maciel’s death in 2008 as the Vatican sought to reform the order. What was unearthed was shocking: in addition to his long record of sexual abuse, Maciel enjoyed the confidence and support of both Pope John Paul II and his long-serving secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in no small part due to Macieil’s flooding the Vatican with generous gifts and troops of fervent priests.

The L’Arche study recognizes that “the institutionalization of charismatic authority...could constitute a breeding ground favourable to the development of configurations of control and the perpetration of abuse,” and that certainly applies to Maciel and his co-abusers in the Legionaries. But the L’Arche commissioners conclude that the toxic microsystem, the “perverse mystic-sexual nucleus” that developed at the heart of L’Arche, the parent house in Trosly-Breuil, did not appear to extend into the L’Arche network of homes elsewhere.

The disclosures of manipulative emotional behavior and sexual abuse by Philippe, Vanier, and the other initiates cut to the very root of L’Arche’s identity, and have unsettled many in and outside the community. Its survival is not imperilled by the study, however, given that the commission operated with the “conviction that exposure [of the abuses] in full light is the essential condition for their extinction” and that we should not lose sight of a verifiable truth that “as head of L’Arche Vanier developed actions with quantified benefits for people with disabilities. To use a Buddhist symbol—a flower grows out of the mud—or precisely—despite the mud.”

As Hazel Bradley of L’Arche UK writes of L’Arche as a federation: “[We are] re-weaving our story together, to recreate a garment of colour, life, hope...discarding what is not of God, and building on what is. It is never too late to begin again.”

Francis Is a Revolutionary

Gianfranco Rosi is one of Italy’s most important living documentary filmmakers. His films include El Sicario, Room 164 (2010), Sacro GRA (2013), and Fire at Sea (2016), which was nominated for an Oscar. His most recent film is In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis, which is largely composed of archival footage shot during the pope’s thirty-seven journeys to fifty-three countries over the course of nine years. He spoke recently with Commonweal associate editor Griffin Oleynick. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Griffin Oleynick: The tenth anniversary of Francis’s pontificate coincided with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which the pope was initially hesitant to directly condemn. How did the outbreak of war in Ukraine affect the making of In Viaggio?

Gianfranco Rosi: Enormously. I began making the film a little more than one year ago, before the beginning of the war. Initially it was impressionistic, without a definite structure or progression.

But last spring I traveled with the pope to Malta, where he spoke out strongly against the war in Ukraine. That was the moment when “history” intruded into my editing process, devouring everything I’d made before. It also threw me into a crisis, making me realize that I really needed to structure In Viaggio chronologically.

So I began with Pope Francis’s famous visit to the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea in 2013. He spoke out in defense of migrants and refugees, and criticized our indifference to the suffering of those on the margins. His remarks back then were prophetic, setting him on a trajectory that led to his antiwar speech in Malta almost a decade later. When I heard it, it just crystallized everything for me, and In Viaggio became like a kind of cinematic Rubik’s Cube—the pieces fell into place.

I also returned to the footage of Pope Francis’s meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, which took place in Cuba in 2014. To me, it seemed like Francis had had a premonition. Alluding to Putin’s invasion of Crimea, the pope told Kirill that one day the “war would touch us all” unless we confronted it right then. He was actually talking about Crimea, and unfortunately, he was right—that conflict has indeed affected the whole world.

We can think of Pope Francis as a “contemporary of the future.” There’s a moment in the film that is a metaphor for how the pope’s prophetic thinking reaches us. It’s when he meets (by video conference) a group of astronauts living at the International Space Station during the pandemic. Seated at his desk in the Vatican, Francis simply says, “Good morning!” Then there’s complete silence, a long pause. After a few seconds, the pope’s voice finally arrives, so that the astronauts can hear him. In a sense, that’s the way it is with all of us, too.

GO: I’m struck by some of the formal choices you made in the film, which are unconventional by today’s documentary standards, especially for films about the pope. There’s no voiceover narration and very little context or exposition given—In Viaggio almost feels like a cinéma vérité film from the 1960s, or even a visual poem. Tell us about that.

GR: Yes, the film is very experimental. I don’t like making distinctions between fiction and documentary. For me, there’s just cinema, and what matters is whether a film is true or false. My process is different from, say, a director of feature films. I don’t use actors. And unlike many documentarians, I don’t have a huge staff. I’m a one-man crew working with reality. But I’m always attentive to the visual language of cinema: I add and subtract, taking reality and transforming it into something else. That’s always my challenge.

To me, it seemed like Francis had had a premonition. Alluding to Putin’s invasion of Crimea, the pope told Kirill that one day the “war would touch us all” unless we confronted it right then.

With In Viaggio I was trying to provoke an emotional experience on the part of the audience. If two hundred people see the film, I want them to have two hundred different individual reactions. The audience needs to be totally free to interact with Pope Francis in a very personal way. That’s why I include so much silence in the film. The moments of silence form a kind of backdrop, giving viewers space to breathe and reflect, just as Pope Francis himself takes time for contemplation.

When Pope Francis meets the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, the entire scene unfolds in total silence. Through the magic of cinema, their silence becomes a kind of voice, an evocation that enables viewers to converse wordlessly with Pope Francis. At least, that’s what In Viaggio has been for me. I’ve spent a lot of my career making movies and calling attention to many of the places he’s traveled to, like Lampedusa, Mexico, and Iraq. So the film is also a kind of personal dialogue with the important work Francis has done there.

Francis is always urging us not to lose our ability to dream. That really became my anchor. This is a pope who speaks to everyone, believers and nonbelievers, with great humility. He talks about urgent historical, political, and moral issues like migration, mass incarceration, climate justice, the arms trade, and war. In a sense the film evokes the great themes of his encyclicals, especially Fratelli tutti. It’s a collage of fragments, eighty minutes drawn from more than eight hundred hours of footage, most of which I didn’t shoot myself. So I was more of a spectator throughout. I wanted to make a portrait of the pope as a man, without resorting to theological or ideological categories.

It’s also true that Pope Francis is not perfect. I actually did get to travel with and shoot him during his trip to Canada last summer. Speaking with Canada’s Indigenous population, he asked forgiveness for the Church’s participation in the horrors and abuses of the residential schools system. I deliberately filmed that scene out of focus, and intercut it with archival images and sounds as if it was taking place inside his own mind.

It was important to show the pope meditating on his own mistakes, and those of the Church. That’s why I also included the scene of Francis’s defensive reaction to a group of reporters in Chile, when he forcefully dismissed allegations of sexual abuse against Bishop Juan Barros. Pope Francis is a man who lives his life in front of cameras, sometimes forgetting that they are there. So he makes mistakes. But more importantly, he knows how to apologize.

GO: Francis’s pontificate has been especially controversial here in the United States, with many American hierarchs openly voicing skepticism about some of his signature initiatives, like the upcoming Synod on Synodality. What role, if any, did intellectual debates—about the future of the Church, say—play in the making of In Viaggio? What do you hope American audiences, both Catholic and secular, will take from it?

GR: My point of view is essentially that of a secular person. Obviously, Pope Francis’s perspective is different, but he does manage to draw attention to issues with universal, political dimensions. He’s an important player in a globalized world.

Francis is always urging us not to lose our ability to dream. That really became my anchor.

Francis is also a revolutionary. He’s changing a lot of things inside the Church, trying to open it up. He’s the first pope to talk openly about the possibility of civil unions for gay people. He never speaks about abortion in an accusatory, aggressive, or judgmental way. He comforts the women who have gone through that painful process. “Who am I to judge?” he asks.

So if the pope is disliked in some quarters, he’s beloved in many more. And by all different kinds of people: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu. He speaks in a transversal way. In Africa, he addressed a huge gathering of half a million people. But he has an incredible way of focusing on the individual, of communicating and looking at people, at what’s inside them. He touches them, and you can almost feel it in the footage. He has a remarkable capacity for compassion.

But the film isn’t just a portrait of Pope Francis. It’s also a map of the human condition, a Stations of the Cross for today. Or a kind of pilgrimage in reverse. The pope is always traveling to see the people, instead of the faithful coming to him. The only moment of In Viaggio where we see Pope Francis inside the walls of the Vatican is at the beginning of the pandemic, where he prays in an empty, rainy St. Peter’s Square. It’s as if he is embracing the whole world with his words at that moment. So many people saw it and picked up on what he was saying, feeling a connection with him. Being a revolutionary also means being alone. And I think viewers will understand his loneliness.

GO:  Speaking of loneliness, some of the most moving scenes in In Viaggio take place inside prisons, especially when Pope Francis embraces incarcerated individuals. What do you see in those moments?

GR: In March, just before the global release of In Viaggio, Pope Francis invited me and the production staff to the Vatican for a private meeting. It was brief, just twenty minutes or so, but he was extremely warm and open. Before leaving, he told me, “Take risks! Be courageous! Because there are too many conservative people around us.”

That’s just what he does in prisons around the world. When I was editing the film, I got very emotional viewing those scenes. Because it’s really where the pope’s nonjudgmental spirit comes to life and becomes visible. He finds dignity in every person he embraces—even notorious sicarios that may have killed twenty or thirty people. Yet Pope Francis addresses them with dignity, telling them that their experience of prison can change them, that they are not alone.

We will miss Pope Francis after he’s gone. Who’s going to be there to warn us, to remind us of the ways in which we’re dehumanizing our world and each other—all without judging us? Perhaps he’s not changing anything concretely, but he’s speaking as the world’s conscience, reminding us of our failings but also of our dignity.

In Viaggio opens with a phrase: “What’s your position?” These are the words of the Italian coast guard, speaking over the radio to a boat full of migrants sinking in the middle of the Mediterranean. This is another metaphor. For the world to actually change, for our situation to become different, we have to know what our position is. What is our position toward war, climate, poverty, globalization—toward everything? Are we indifferent? Do we really care? What’s my position? That’s what Pope Francis is always urging us to ask ourselves.