A group of philanthropists – including Jeff Bezos – went to the Vatican to see the Pope earlier this month. The Arab Foundation Forum’s Naila Farouky reports on the inaugural ‘Faith and Philanthropy Summit’
When I got the email in August inviting me to attend the inaugural ‘Vatican Summit on Faith and Philanthropy’, with the possibility of a private audience with The Pope, I honestly thought it was a joke.
It wasn’t a joke, and in fact, it was quite an honour to be included in this event because it was a small group – and my friends at the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists, as one of the summit partners with The Galileo Foundation, had been given the opportunity to invite a small delegation to the summit, and they had included me.
The purpose of the summit, as far as the initial email conveyed, was to bring together a small group of philanthropists from different faiths under the auspices of His Holiness, Pope Francis, at The Vatican to discuss a variety of faith-based topics, as well as to officially launch the Human Family Fund – a joint fund launched by The Galileo Foundation and UBS; and, finally, to present the inaugural Prophets of Philanthropy Awards. Beyond that, not much information was shared. We were told the dates of the summit (13-15 October), and that there would be two black-tie gala dinners, and a list of exactly two hotels with preferential rates for summit attendees. That’s it. And then, I didn’t hear anything more until 9 October.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t immediately RSVP yes to this invitation. I had just come out of my first bout with Covid (after 2.5 years of diligently avoiding it like, well, like the plague), and I had also just lost all data on my laptop from the past six years, so I was reeling. But this wasn’t a tough decision. It’s Italy. It’s The Vatican. It’s THE POPE. And it’s THIS Pope, especially, so I RSVPed ‘yes’ and booked my hotel (at the VERY preferential rate – I do work at a non-profit, thank you very much), and waited to see what this whole to-do was about.
The evening before the summit kick-off on 13 October, we were invited for a private tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, followed by a Gala Dinner in the museum surrounded by your run-of-the-mill, every day Italian art by the Masters and geniuses of their day, no big deal. It was, as far as Black-Tie Gala Dinners at The Sistine Chapel go, understated and lovely.
Day one of the summit – 14 October – we met at the lobby of the Hotel Eden at 8:30 a.m. and boarded shuttle buses to The Vatican. We were ushered into the Casina Pio IV Hall and told to find our assigned seating. The hall is set up in an oval formation, with chairs in tiers – but it’s a small room, meant for about 75 people. We were a total of 112 people, give or take, and the space in the middle had an additional table with seats all around it, as well as extra chairs filling every possible corner, to accommodate the overspill. As it turns out, I was seated in the middle table with a random selection of other attendees, none of whom could figure out why we were chosen to sit in the middle of it all. I joked that, perhaps, we were the ones who would be sacrificed or stoned? My tablemates didn’t think that was funny. And then I looked over to the chairs surrounding my table and saw a name card reading ‘Jeff Bezos’, which took a few minutes for my brain to compute, and I thought ‘What on earth is the Amazon guy doing here?’
Well, it turns out ‘The Amazon Guy’ was there to deliver a keynote speech, to accept a ‘Prophets of Philanthropy Award’ for himself and, presumably, to meet His Holiness, The Pope. In addition to Bezos, The Galileo Foundation was giving out two more ‘Prophets of Philanthropy Awards’ – including one to Ted Turner, whose daughter was on hand to accept on his behalf.
Key observation number one? In a world of over seven billion people, The Vatican, in its pursuit of worthy philanthropists, couldn’t find anyone other than four, white men to honour? Really?
The Pope himself noted in 2020 that the 50 richest people possess the equivalent of US$ 2.2 trillion and that these people, on their own could finance ‘medical care and education for every poor child in the world, either through taxes and/or philanthropy and save millions of lives every year.’
I’m not one for tokenism but, honestly, with MacKenzie Scott transforming the landscape of philanthropy in almost every way, no one thought she might be a more worthy recipient than her ex-husband? To date, MacKenzie Scott has given away approximately 20 per cent of her wealth to philanthropic causes and doesn’t show signs of slowing down. In contrast, Bezos has given away between one and five per cent of his wealth. I know The Vatican hasn’t always been great at reading the room, but the process of selecting the award recipients feels lacking, frankly. Interesting, also, that at an inaugural interfaith-based summit, the only faith awarded would be Christian.
The summit was short of substantive content and engaging discussion. Mostly, the speakers were pre-selected and intentionally so. Bezos’ keynote and award acceptance speech was ultimately the most memorable part of the summit – whether good or bad. The rest of the interventions were relatively tame, although the networking was next level! Ultimately, everything led to the much-anticipated private audience with Pope Francis, which seemed less and less likely with each passing day. On the final day of the summit, we were meant to meet His Holiness at 11:30 a.m. Earlier that morning, we had been assured this was still the plan, although some of us had our doubts. But 20 minutes before, our host announced that, unfortunately, the Pope’s team had just informed him that our group, along with three other groups, were to be cancelled and that His Holiness had opted instead to host a large gathering of approximately 5,000 youth and was too tired to do that as well as hold private audiences.
So, The Pope cancelled on us. Honestly, I found that to be so poetic in its justice and probably the most appropriate way to inject a much needed shot of humility into the gathering. After all, I suspect that given the choice between a gathering of 5,000 youth or a small group of the wealthiest people on the planet, hosting the youth group is EXACTLY what Jesus would do.
Naila Farouky is CEO of the Arab Foundations Forum.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the Arab Foundations Forum.