“Remember that the future has a memory. So try to bring the future, to memorize the future, to anticipate the future, with science, of course. Use social sciences, ecology, economy, health, politics, security, projections, but also use your imagination.” This was the advice from Pope Francis to a 50-year old Argentinian priest from Buenos Ares, Father Augusto Zampini Davies, Adjunct (supplementary) Secretary to the Vatican department for promoting issues of social justice and development. Francis had appointed Father Zampini in early April to lead a new Vatican Coronavirus Response Team. One of its roles is drawing on the Catholic tradition to start imagining and planning for the post- Covid-19 world. This team will report directly to the Pope.
The Prefect of the Vatican department for promoting Integral Human Development, which houses this team, is a Ghanaian Cardinal, Peter Turkson, formerly Archbishop of Cape Coast. I first met him at his home in the city of Cape Coast where, accompanied by the Archbishop of Accra, Charles Palmer-Buckle, they sang a very creditable rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ for his visitors. Cardinal Turkson’s father was a carpenter and his mother sold vegetables in the local market. He knows what poverty is and holds some controversial views. He has not been wary of ruffling feathers in Rome by promoting the need for economic structural change and reform of the international financial system.
A close colleague who worked with Cardinal Turkson for six years after founding the African Jesuit AIDS network and coordinating Jesuit efforts to combat HIV in sub-Saharan Africa is the Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny. During 1990-1991 he courageously stepped into the shoes of one of the Jesuits murdered by the Salvadorian military at the University of Central America to lead its Institute for Human Rights.
Bureaucracy is not noted for prizing imagination highly. And the Vatican, of course, is nothing if not a bureaucracy. But the members of the Integral Human Development department and of Pope Francis’ Response Team do not do fit the stereotype of the Vatican official.
There is also something that feels a little outside-the-box, but comfortingly home-grown, about Father Zampini. He served as a priest in a Pimlico parish, Holy Apostles, not far from Chelsea Bridge in London, strongly influenced by the developmentalist, Amartya Sen, he took his Master’s Degree in Economics and Development at the University of Bath in 2010, and later did research at the Margaret Beaufort Theological Institute in Cambridge, a centre for lay theology. He has honorary degrees from Durham, Roehampton and Stellenbosch. I first met him at Roehampton trying gamely to convince his audience that Argentinian ‘theology of the people’ was based on popular piety and so should not be mixed up with liberation theology which drew on Marxist thought.
Why all this personal detail? Well, stories about the Churches usually provide little insight into the people behind official roles and titles. They are presented as figureheads doing bad things the reader will deplore or good things the reader is expected to applaud. But Church officials do not necessarily fit the stereotypes which shape readers’ expectations. Personality matters.
The Pope’s sense of the pivotal importance of the current moment is evident here. Zampini reporting on the task of the Response Team given him by Francis said “He (the Pope) also says this has to be an opportunity for something, for the common good, for what we call the common good,”
What can be expected of this Vatican Response Team? CARITAS INTERNATIONALIS, the Rome-based global umbrella body for national Catholic agencies serving the poor, will be supporting the initiative. But Zampini’s team is only the size of a small department in a medium size NGO. It will need to work with like-minded bodies such as the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact and with experts in different disciplines in a variety of universities and institutions. But when it comes to imagination, size is not determinative. Indeed creativity sometimes thrives on solitude, or is generated by small teams with vision.
Imagination which is in short supply in normal times sometimes flowers in a crisis. The history of the Catholic Church is a story of innovation and imagination clashing with or at least worrying bureaucracy. A radical Jewish sect becomes a Global Faith, Religious Orders oppose Rome, Worker Priests, Liberation theologians oppose the conservatism of religious leaders, Women Religious escape their confinement and pioneer educational, medical and social services, and so on. The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once said that we should “drink from our own wells”, not an advisory to stay at home, but to draw on the wealth of experience, ethical reflection, spirituality and tradition in the Church. And this implies, amongst other things, significant redistribution of wealth, transfers of money from military and armament expenditure, as well as more comprehensive debt relief for poorer countries.
As Father Zampini says, we “can't go back to repeating mistakes of the past, when crises were exploited to reaffirm the superiority of some at the expense of others. That's what happened in the 2008 crisis, when we saved the banks instead of the investors.” He has a daunting task ahead of him but a popular Pope behind him. We should wish him well.