Ever since his ascendancy to the papacy, Pope Francis has surprised his followers both at home and abroad with more liberal statements than any other pontiff in recent history. Given his origins in Argentina, not regarded as an overly liberal society, his age (he turns 78 on Dec 17), and the traditions of the Catholic faith. He has created history by his departures from expectations normally associated with the Vatican.
He has shown remarkable alacrity in zeroing in on the issues of the day, religious and non-religious, across the world. He brings his own unique viewpoint to bear on them. He has a warm embracing attitude to the state of the world today, its denizens of all faiths and inclinations, and has no wish to exclude any from his scrutiny and concern.
In taking on the name, he was influenced by St Francis of Assisi, the saint of little, ordinary, and poor creatures. He has shed much of the trappings of the catholic headship which brought so much controversy to the church in the past. This has pervaded his actions and thoughts ever since.
Humility and austerity, love for mankind and a desire to help and nurture his flock, be they catholic or not, shine through his voice and actions. While his speech and words are echoes of stories and examples from the scriptures, he does not apply them to Catholics alone. Pope Francis’s leadership of the Catholic Church has been hailed by many for its modesty, a surprising ingredient for a pontiff.
Pope Francis’s wide-ranging concerns encompass all the pervasive world issues of the day. On January 1, 2015 as part of the “World Day of Peace,” he is scheduled to deliver a speech on modern-day slavery. He will enumerate all the different contributing factors to the “scourge of man’s exploitation by man.” He points out that occurs when societies force children into becoming soldiers, women into sex, imposes horrendous working conditions upon laborers, and exploit hapless, disenfranchised immigrants.
The Pope Francis lays out a comprehensive plan for combating modern-day slavery. He calls on church, states, businesses, government organizations, and social organizations to step up and do their bit.
Pope Francis surprisingly recognizes the role of women in the world and the church more than any other pontiff. He has appointed several women to an important theological commission. Francis refers often to the “feminine genius” and the need for church to develop “a deeper theology of women.” He is determined to promote women to senior positions in Rome.
Pope Francis adjures the Catholic Church’s top theologians to recognize the “signs of the times” and cater to the needs of ordinary Catholics. In an interview published on Sunday by La Nación, his first with a newspaper from his home country, he exemplifies his meaning.
He urges the church to liberalize its attitude to gay and divorced family issues. The contentious discussions at the controversial “Synod of Bishops” in October, exposed divisions over issues involving homosexuals and divorced Catholics. Discussions ranged around problems affecting Catholic families, to provide solutions on issues such polygamy, domestic violence, gay marriage, poverty, and divorce. These issues drew the liberal support of the pope, but sparked fierce opposition from more tradition-minded bishops.
Pope Francis goes further, saying not only that it is good to air these divisions, but that it is entirely natural to have them. Different points of view are welcome. His leadership style is based on openness to change and a willingness to listen. And to admitting his own fallibility. His commitment to listening allows voices to rise and controversy to emerge.
He tells La Nación that gay marriage was not discussed; focus was on how to help the family of a homosexual child. Instead of shunning that child, the church should teach the parents how to stand by him or her. He wants to open the door to Catholics who have divorced and those who have remarried. Saying they should be allowed to participate in religious ceremonies like communion or taking on roles of godparents at baptisms.
His position on the “new normal” of family life is remarkable. Yet just as liberally, he gives others the opportunity to voice their opinions and viewpoints; not a stance taken by many of his predecessors. He admits there is disagreement and resistance to his beliefs, but emphasizes it is healthy to air it and not allow it to fester. The discussion of family issues will reconvene next October. The pope will then decide on any modifications required to the church’s approach.
Pope Francis plans to travel to Philadelphia in the United States next September for the “World Meeting of Families.” He is expected to accept invitations to speak at the United Nations and to deliver an address to Congress. This again is a first for any pope. Facing dissent from prominent U.S. Archbishops and a Cardinal (Raymond Burke), who was dismissed from two prominent Vatican offices does not deter his plans.
The pope has initiated an overhaul of the Vatican’s operating departments scheduled for completion next year. This is in response to the cardinals’ demands for a wholesale makeover to the Holy See’s ostentatious, corroded and scandal-prone image. Some Vatican departments are to be merged, the structure de-layered and simplified, and a much more stringent oversight of the finance departments implemented, a slow and complex process that should yield good results.
He is modest and dismissive about concerns for his health, attributing the normal aches and pains to age, but emphasizing that they do not hinder his work rhythm. Pope Francis does not take a vacation, rises before dawn, and maintains a rigorous schedule. Last year, he celebrated his birthday with three homeless men. This year, again he is expected to mark his birthday with the staff in the modest rooming house where he lives.
Pope Francis is the most surprising pontiff in memory. He enjoys enormous popularity in most parts of the world. His untraditional views and words have opened up schisms in the church since his election. He has staunchly underlined his commitment to church doctrine. However, his reformist ideas and insistence in welcoming back the flock that was de facto excommunicated due to their un-Catholic views or actions, has rejuvenated the world’s image of traditional hide-bound Catholicism.
By Bina Joseph
Main Image by Catholic Church England – Flickr License
Photo by Catholic Church England – Flickr License