BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Pope Francis is demanding justice for the victims of Argentina’s worst terrorist attack, using what is increasingly becoming his signature way of communicating: an amateur smartphone video message, recorded on the fly by a visiting friend in the comfort of Francis’ Vatican hotel room.
To be aired Friday during the official commemoration of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, the video is the latest evidence that Francis has no qualms about circumventing the Vatican’s media machine to get his message out – for better or worse.
A close friend of the pope’s, Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, shot the video last month on his Samsung phone when he visited Francis at the Vatican. Epelman said he asked Francis, who was an auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires at the time of the attack, if he would like to send a message to Argentina’s Jewish community to mark the anniversary.
“He thought about it for half a second and said, `Do you have your cellphone with you?”’ Epelman told The Associated Press. “And I said `yes’ and then he said, `Good, let’s record it now!”’
In the message, the pope speaks off-the-cuff, with the hum of passing cars audible through the open windows of his hotel room. He condemns terrorism as “lunacy” and says Argentina must come to terms with the damage and pain the unsolved crime still causes.
“Today, together with my solidarity and my prayers for all the victims, comes my desire for justice. May justice be done!” he says.
Last year, Argentina and Iran approved a “truth commission” aimed at moving the investigation forward by enabling Argentine prosecutors to travel to Tehran to question former Iranian officials suspected of organizing the attack. But little progress has been made and Jewish groups say Argentina’s failure to press Iran guarantees impunity. Tehran denies any involvement.
It’s the second time Francis has provided a homemade smartphone message to issue a directed message, and confirms that the 77-year-old pope is perfectly comfortable using new media and technology to communicate, even though he grew up listening to opera on Argentine radio on Sunday afternoons, keeps a hand-written agenda and has never owned a cellphone.
Earlier this year, he caused shockwaves by recording an iPhone video message of brotherly friendship to a gathering of Pentecostals, one of the Catholic Church’s fiercest competitors for Christian souls around the world. It was shot by an evangelical clergyman friend and broadcast at a Pentecostal conference, whose participants responded by praying in tongues for the pope and sending back a video message of thanks.
While Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI sent the first papal tweet from the Vatican’s (at)Pontifex account in 2012, it was a carefully orchestrated affair arranged by his Vatican communications team. Francis is breaking new ground by going it alone, granting audiences and interviews he arranges himself and allowing trusted friends to deliver messages to groups he might otherwise have a hard time reaching through official Vatican channels.
“Pope Francis is clearly very comfortable communicating in new ways, and seems unconstrained by the `old ways’ of doing things,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author. “And like Jesus, he grasps that the best way to communicate is by speaking to people plainly, and by using accessible media. For Jesus, that medium was often the parable; for Francis it might be an encyclical, but it also might be YouTube or a smartphone.”
Francis’ willingness to shun the Vatican’s bulky press operation in favor of the immediacy and unstuffiness of new and unofficial media has come at a cost. Just last week, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was forced to issue a lengthy clarification after Francis chatted with an Italian atheist and journalist, Eugenio Scalfari.
In the interview published in the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica, Scalfari quoted the pope as saying that there were cardinals among pedophile clergymen and that he would find a solution to the problem surrounding the celibate priesthood.
Scalfari has admitted he doesn’t take notes or record his interviews, and merely reconstructs them after the fact as he remembers them. As a result, Lombardi said, the quotes attributed to Francis cannot be confirmed. And he suggested Scalfari might have intentionally manipulated the pope’s words “for naive readers.”
Francis clearly doesn’t seem to care: It was the second interview he has given Scalfari. After the first, Lombardi was forced to issue a clarification as well.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield reported this story from New York and Almudena Calatrava reported in Buenos Aires.
Nicole Winfield on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nwinfield