Pope Francis called for peaceful dialogue in Ukraine on Sunday, concluding his remarks by having adorable Italian children release two white doves from the window of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. The magical and touching symbol was quickly attacked by the harsh reality of bird-on-bird violence, with one seagull and one black crow attacking the doves. The crowd, inspired and blessed only moments earlier, watched in helpless horror as the crow and gull pecked and pulled at the doves.
What better symbol could there be for the world in 2013, its many setbacks and disappointments, and in particular for Pope Francis's well-intentioned but, so far, frequently unsuccessful attempts to improve it.
Since taking office last March, the pope's high-aiming campaigns and grand gestures have often, and tragically, been overtaken by the cold, hard realities on the ground. This is not a slight against Francis, whose public role continues to inspire lots of people around the world, including a number of left-leaning Westerners who see him as a kindred spirit. But the difficulties he's encountered in his first year, and that his bold approach may continue to encounter, are symbolized well by Sunday's dove disaster.
One of Francis's most significant forays into world affairs may have been his campaign against U.S. offshore strikes against Syria as retaliation for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians. In September, the pope went on a fast and led a global prayer vigil to oppose the strikes.
Where this rankled many Syria activists and observers was Francis's declaration that he was rallying against war and for peace by opposing U.S. strikes – a puzzling assertion given that both the Syrian regime and rebels had killed, and were continuing to kill, far more people than any U.S. cruise missiles would have done. For an Argentine pope who looked poised to globalize the church, he seemed to take an oddly Western-centric view that the war didn't count as a war, or wasn't worth protesting, until a Western country was involved.
Syria is probably the most difficult and violent conflict in the world today, a very real conundrum for a pope so earnestly committed to using his power to better the world. But those papal peace doves keep getting cut down mid-flight. In December, the pope's efforts appeared to get co-opted by the Syrian government. Assad has long positioned himself as a champion and protector of Christians and argues that his government must stay in power to shield Syrian Christians from Sunni extremists. The Assad government used the pope's involvement to further portray itself as the sole guardian of Christians, Western involvement as a threat to peace (what peace?) and an immediate ceasefire preserving the regime as the only path forward.
Other papal doves have fallen less spectacularly. On Ukraine itself, for example, Francis has not taken a direct role in attempting to mediate the conflict. Meanwhile, Ukraine's clergy has shown up on the front lines to provide food and comfort, and at times to physically stand between protesters and riot police. To be fair, Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox, not Catholic, so there is no obvious role for him to play. Still, that raises the question of why make this gesture at all if he's speaking only to people outside the conflict and asking for no more than good wishes, a sort of slacktivism writ large.
His forays into the U.K.-Argentine dispute over the Falkland Islands (a British colonial possession whose population has voted overwhelmingly to remain in the United Kingdom) seemed to deepen international tensions rather than improve them. In December, he visited with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and urged an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal "as soon as possible." To be fair, this wasn't any less successful than most interlocutors that came before him.
On global gay rights, Francis has made oblique comments that seem to hint at a possible break with anti-gay church orthodoxy, but has yet to go any further than this. In December, when the Bishop of Malta came under fire for a sermon condemning policies allowing gay couples to adopt children, he countered that Francis himself had approved the sermon and its message.
Pope Francis seems to have preferred symbolic gestures and appeals to morality over the earthly but productive diplomacy that made his predecessor's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, so consequential to history. Francis has frequently inveighed against the excesses of capitalism, the plight of the poor and the political structures that seem more concerned with big banks than with struggling families. That has inspired and thrilled left-leaning supporters, who see Francis as a highly placed ally who might finally get political leaders to listen. So far, it has not had much appreciable impact on the ground.
To be fair, Pope Francis is not even yet a full year in. His speeches and symbols may yet change minds, change policies and change the world. Those peace doves could still proliferate. So far, though, they have mostly been chased away.