Historians attempting to explain something as indescribable as why certain artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Andy Warhol, Beethoven and Lou Reed are celebrated most for being important leaders of their genre, often refer to ‘Zeitgeist’ as an essential ingredient to their art. The term literally meaning ‘the spirit of the time’ illustrates the importance for a person to be from, represent and interact with one’s time in order to truly contribute something great to it. We are now supposedly living in a time of great depression, where current generations of young people are the first generations who do not expect to live to enjoy better conditions than their parents. While it is debatable whether this necessarily means that people will be unhappier in the future, serious issues as global warming, financial crashes, youth unemployment, pensioner loneliness, worldwide ethnic conflict and refugee crises do dictate recipes for misery (all incidentally topics of last week’s papers).
A time of crisis is scary however it is also a fantastic moment during which to think about what can replace that which obviously did not work before. We will only really know what our time signifies in hindsight – once those historians finally get their hands on it. But what has already greatly disappointed me during this past decade of challenges and crises is how not one European politician, when speaking about [insert favoured political debate here: ‘terrorism’/ ‘the financial crisis’/ ‘Islamophobia’/ ‘global warming’/ ‘illegal asylum seekers’/ ‘budget cuts’/ ‘the European Union’], has ever just turned around and told everyone to stop complaining. Perhaps something along the lines of: “Yes, the situation now may seem pretty dire, sadly there are no easy solutions in life and we will encounter plenty more difficulties whilst solving problems, but all in all, life in our countries is not so bad, we need to stop blaming each other and just work hard together to fix ‘it’.” No, to my frustration instead massive issues are usually ignored, exaggerated or explained away as “we need to focus on economic growth.”
Recently, a surrogate to these disappointing political leaders has come from a highly unexpected corner, namely a religious centre previously only of concern whenever it demonstrated how behind the times it is. With his appointment last March, Pope Francis vowed to dedicate himself to the poor. Not necessarily an innovative standpoint in Christianity, this promise could have been easily achieved with some empty, symbolic donations and sermons, but in actual fact has received real content through the Pope’s actions. Lampedusa has over the past 10 years become a point of entry to the EU for thousands of asylum seekers and formed the setting for the new Christian figure head’s first visit outside of Rome. Mass was celebrated there not ignoring the extreme suffering of Lampadusa’s shores, yet fully overlooking the graveyard of wrecks of fishing boats sunk on their journey from Africa and the Middle East. Following this, the new Pope has addressed widespread youth unemployment and how it is creating a generation of the jobless who have been robbed of the chance to generate personal dignity. He has reprimanded a German church man with a 31 million pound house (including a 15.000 pound bathtub) And at a detention centre close to Rome as part of Easter ritual he washed and kissed the feet of young offenders, including a Muslim woman.
According to him we are suffering from a ‘globalization of indifference.’ Harsh words, meaning that we all around the world have forgotten how to feel empathy and have become accustomed to the suffering of others, because it is not our business. Accompanying this feeling of indifference is a social atmosphere dominated by a disposable culture obsessed by our own well-being – not only in terms of lifestyle, however also referring to people considered to be a burden. Strangely these words of criticism have not estranged people from him or made them resentful that once again the Papacy is pointing out our sins. 10 million people now follow Pope Francis on twitter, which is an 8 million increase up on the last Pope. His hopes are that we will replace our current blind climate with a culture of inclusion.
And finally, Pope Francis is initiating what will undoubtedly be a painfully slow clean up of his church. Three of the rising BRIC countries which are also amongst the ten largest Christian countries in the world – Russia, China and Brazil – deal with, and indeed politically endorse extreme homophobia. Whilst lamentably yet not unpredictably the Pope remains a steadfast opponent of abortion, same-sex marriage and gay adoption, last September Pope Francis said the Catholic Church must shake off an obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality and become more merciful or risk the collapse of all its moral preachings “like a house of cards”.
New found respect for the leader of the Christian faith does not entail that now Christianity is the way forward. However, even though the above social issues are not essentially connected to religion but more so to human rights, Pope Francis has not shied away from addressing them, truly showing that he is willing to interact with his time and understands in what form best to do this given his position in society. The issues which he is tackling are highly salient and as he rightly points out, they are global phenomenon. Politicians are often inadequately addressing these issues, exactly because it is beyond their scope to raise and solve globally caused issues playing out across borders. Previously, the global super power would have been the leader on global issues of morality, however currently it is problematic to point out exactly who this super power is. Certain international figures are now taking over the global moral burden from flailing national politicians and super powers. Bill Gates is another example of an international figure, influential through his technological and business skills, who is now ringing alarm bells on issues ranging from malaria to education. While these men are demonstrating leadership on a global scale, they will not be the ones who decide what content will characterize the spirit of our time. Those who truly design and implement that spirit, forming the link between the international people of moral action and the national executive politicians are still, more than ever, us.