“The world today is mostly deaf,” the Pontiff observes in Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, Wim Wenders’ documentary on this religious leader who likes to quote Dostoevsky, joke about mothers-in-law, and advocate for the sick, the poor, the disenfranchised, and Planet Earth.

He is, I realized while watching this film and hearing this man of words, a public health advocate.

Throughout the film, we see clips of Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners in Philadelphia, comforting dying children in a pediatric clinic in central Africa, and speaking out to the U.S. Congress about the dangers of climate change and damaging the environment, the arms trade, and unfettered consumerism.

On the impacts of the pace of modern life, Pope Francis explained, “We live with the accelerator down from morning to night. This ruins mental health, spiritual health and physical health. Moreso: it affects and destroys the family. And therefore society.”

The Pope’s bottom-line: “We are not machines!” (THINK: AI, robotics, and the erosion of off-line social connections).

In another clip, Pope Francis talked about the “three T’s:” Trabajo, Tierra, and Techo.

Techo speaks to a “roof” and family life.

Tierra is the land.

And trabajo? Work, which the Pope says is, “The most noble thing that man has…to imitate G-d with your hands by creating.”

One of the Pope’s most passionate moments in the film is his invitation to slow down and listen to each other: “Talk a little, listen a lot, say just enough, and look everyone in the eye,” he recommends.”We need to learn to listen. Differences always scare us but make us grow. Tenderness is not weakness, it’s strength. We have so much to do. And we must do it together.”

Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Pope adopted the name of 13th century St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was chronicled to have cared for people with leprosy, which became an ongoing ministry for Francis and the friars. So the health mission was certainly alive with the Pope’s namesake’s modus vivendi.

Another of the Pope’s passions is caring for the environment; as the Boston Globe wrote, “the Catholic Church is going green.” Pope Francis wrote the encyclical Laudato si just in time to provide input into the U.N. climate change conference in Paris. In Section 25, he emphasizes, “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming…their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children.”

[FYI, Climate change has many health effects; one that isn’t discussed enough is the phenomenon’s negative impact on mental health, which I covered here on Health Populi.]

Section 28 talks about clean water and health: “Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care.” (THINK: Flint, Michigan).

Finally, in Section 142, Pope Francis believes that, “If everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment. Social ecology is necessarily institutional, and gradually extends to the whole of society, from the primary social group, the family, to the wider local, national and international communities. Within each social stratum, and between them, institutions develop to regulate human relationships. Anything which weakens those institutions has negative consequences, such as injustice, violence and loss of freedom.” 

These quotes make some of my case for the Pope as public health advocate. There are more, and you can read the Laudato si as well as see Wenders’ moving film to gain your own insights into this inspirational leader.

Finally, note that the Vatican hosted the “Unite to Cure” healthcare conference in April 2018, conceived as a “Davos for healthcare,” to convene experts to brainstorm the theme, “How Science, Technology and the 21st Century Medicine Will Impact Culture and Society.” The meeting’s objective was, “to advance human health and protect our environment in an ethically viable way, preserving humanity, culture, and society.” More details on the event can be found in this press release.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: The Pope leaves us at the conclusion of the film with a personal confession: “Every day, after my morning prayer, I recite St. Thomas More. His ‘Prayer for Good Humor. It starts in a way that makes you laugh. ‘Give me, oh Lord, a good digestion, but also something to digest.’ That’s it.”

Here is the complete meditation:

Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.
Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good
and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil,
but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.
Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments,
nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”
Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.
Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.

So the Pope is a public health advocate, evangelizing the importance of the social determinants of health for all humanity: clean water, clean and safe environment, food, good jobs, and social connections. Add in a good sense of humor to bolster well-being, too.

[Some readers might look at the title of this post, calling the Pope a “public health advocate” a misnomer because the Catholic Church does not support a woman’s right to choose. I do not agree with the Church on that position as I staunchly support women’s full reproductive health rights. However, I can’t discount all of the positive positions Pope Francis takes for peoples’ health — and especially for the health of the safety net populations around the world]. 

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