Those who are familiar with and understand the Catholic Church, have seen immense changes under the 266th pontiff, Pope Francis, in the past year, since he was first appointed. On that day, from the simple vestment and metal cross he wore, to the way he addressed crowds, saying buona sera and asking them for their blessing, he set the tone from the beginning to that of humility and inclusion.
In addition to those qualities, what is most remarkable, according to many observers, is the open-mindedness that the pope has consistently exuded throughout his first year of papacy. This value was expressed even in his first days when he performed symbolic washing and kissing of the feet of those detained at a juvenile detention center (above).
Pope Francis has made many other statements and taken actions that represent a change for the church. For example, he said that if atheists could go to heaven, if they acted and behaved morally. He has denounced capitalism. And, he has claimed that he is not one to judge gays. In fact, last week, he made an unprecedented comment as pope: He suggested that, although it overtly opposes gay marriage, the Catholic Church could support some types of same-sex civil unions. Citing the economic benefits for couples, he recommended careful evaluation on a case-by-case basis.
Followers of Pope Francis appreciate his spirituality and have helped to raise his approval polls. This impact is termed “The Francis Effect,” which includes increased attendance, and renewed enthusiasm among those who had felt unwelcomed at church. Worshipers including divorced parishioners, former priests, and women worldwide, are among those with renewed hope. The revival among churchgoers is termed a “healing balm.”
Many high officials in the church, such as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in England, express surprise and relief at Pope Francis’ reforms. Acclaim for the changes he has brought about led him to be named Time magazine’s person of the year, and he is said to be up for consideration for a Nobel Peace Prize. In response to high praise for his actions, calling him “Superman,” he says he is offended, responding that he is “a normal person.”
The changes brought about by Pope Francis have primarily changed his leadership. Church doctrine – regarding the role of women, gays, and divorced Catholics – is another matter. Other aspects of the church that remain status quo are the main bureaucracy of the church, the Roman curia, and the searing issues of sex abuse among the clergy and chronic financial corruption within the Vatican Bank.
There are dissenters to the Pope. Some, like Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, say that Francis’ efforts to reform the church carry risks. He has heard people say that they are praying for the pope to die soon. The Cardinal replied that that is wicked and likened the sentiment to the original dissenters of Jesus Christ.
Despite naysayers, many Catholics in communities worldwide are optimistic that Pope Francis’ tone is setting the stage for (eventual) significant change to church structure, which, after all, is almost 2000 years in the making. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day!
By Fern Remedi-Brown