Photo Citation: Pope Francis to Visit Birthplace of His Namesake on Saint’s Feast Day. My Franciscan. By Carol Glatz. Web. <http://www.myfranciscan.org/pope-francis-to-visit-birthplace-of-his-namesake-on-saints-feast-day/>.
In December 2013, Time magazine named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, more commonly known today as Pope Francis, their “Person of the Year.” While it might seem fairly obvious that the selection of a new leader of one of the world’s largest faiths would be a major highlight of whichever year it occurred, only three other religious leaders have ever been awarded the same distinction by Time (Pope John XXIII in 1962, Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, and Pope John Paul II in 1994). In their profile of the next pontiff, Time states, “what makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all.” Indeed, during his first few months as pope, Francis has touched countless individuals all over the world—many of whom are not even currently under his spiritual guidance.
The Pope’s sudden rise to prominence is mostly due to two factors: circumstance and style. Francis happens to occupy the papacy at a time when international audiences crave solutions but lack real leadership. As governments around the world are increasingly seen as abusive or incompetent, citizens have given up on receiving answers from politicians and bureaucrats. According to a Pew Research poll conducted in 2013, a record low 19 percent of Americans say that they trust the government to do what is right. The United States, however, is not alone in this phenomenon. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures the public’s confidence in certain institutions around the globe, saw worldwide trust in government decrease in 2012 to only 43 percent. This new skepticism surrounding government has created a void that religion has the potential to fill. Fortunately, Pope Francis is the perfect figure to step into the spotlight and fill that void. The Catholic Church has in the past been damaged by the perception that it is averse to change and unable to adapt to modern circumstances. Although no faith should change its doctrine, or even its style, based on public pressure, religion often seems too traditionalist or regressive for the tastes of contemporary audiences—as a 2012 Pew poll showed, atheism is the world’s third largest religious group today, behind Christianity and Islam. If religious faiths wish to provide the guidance to individuals that governments worldwide have failed to deliver, then they must find a way to paint a bright picture of the future in addition to maintaining a proper respect for the past.
The College of Cardinals achieved this goal by nominating Jorge Mario Bergoglio as their next pontiff. As the first Jesuit Pope, the first Pope from the Americas, the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first non-European Pope since AD 741 (1273 years ago), Pope Francis symbolizes the world’s changing landscape and the contemporary diversity of the Catholic faith. The Pope serves also as a symbol of modernity for the Catholic Church when they need it most, overcoming the institution’s unfortunate (and often unfair) reputation for “living in the past.”
Nevertheless, Pope Francis’ dynamic nature derives not only from his personal circumstances but also from his inspiring actions over the law few months. For instance, he has adopted a starkly new tone when dealing with social issues, which has the potential to expand the Catholic faith and the public’s positive attitude toward religion in general. Not long after assuming the papacy himself, Francis answered a question about gay priests by saying “if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Admittedly, the above statement, delivered only as an answer to a reporter’s question on board a plane, has no dogmatic authority. However, Francis’ words are indicative of a larger trend within his papacy. In an in-depth interview for La Civiltà Cattolica, Francis outlined his new vision for the Catholic Church: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that…We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” As the fight to legalize gay marriage has raged around the globe, Francis has elected to avoid debating the actual policy and preach instead the love and toleration found in the Gospel itself.
In practice, the Pope has not changed any of the underlying beliefs or convictions of the Catholic faith. Although Francis employs a much different style than many of his predecessors, who frequently reminded believers about the church’s position on these controversial issues (Pope Benedict often used high-profile occasions, including Christmas mass, to condemn gay marriage, claiming that the practice destroyed the “essence of the human creature”), he has striven to justify his new approach according to existing Catholic doctrine. In his interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, the Pope defended his more open rhetoric as bringing the faith back to the church’s original mission: “I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free. It is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.” Francis recognizes that, while religion should provide believers with a traditional moral framework for living a wholesome life, the church has limitations. In the end, it is the individual responsibility of each Christian to carry out the church’s teachings—teachings of which he feels the public is already well aware. This approach fulfills the church’s original mission by reflecting the words of its founder, Jesus Christ, who famously said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” Despite its divine message, the church is still governed by mortal, imperfect men, who, according to Jesus’ teachings, do not have the moral authority to judge fellow sinners. While Francis is certainly not the first pope to embrace this scripture, he has bent over backwards to demonstrate its importance to a watching world. In the process, Francis has managed to reform the public’s perception of religion without apologizing for it.
Indeed, Francis’ change in rhetoric parallels a changing attitude among Catholic parishioners as well. For instance, according to a survey of Catholics worldwide conducted by Univision, many believers are challenging traditional norms of the faith. Majorities of Catholics now support the use of contraceptives, favor allowing priests to get married, and disagree with the policy that prohibits anyone who has divorced and remarried outside of the Catholic Church from receiving communion. Although a sizeable majority of Catholics (66 percent) still oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage, this statistic varies immensely by region. In Africa, 99 percent of Catholics are opposed to the practice, which represents the largest disapproval of any continent. Meanwhile, Catholics in North America favor same-sex marriage by a 14 percent margin, the largest show of support for any region. Latin America, Pope Francis’ homeland, opposes same-sex marriage by a 20 percent margin.
These regional divides are also present with regards to other social topics outside marriage: North American Catholics usually are most progressive, European and Latin American Catholics are often in the center, and Asian and African Catholics are by far the most conservative faction. Considering the regional divide in opinion on these contentious issues, it is surprising that Pope Francis has maintained such a high level of popularity across all areas (87 percent worldwide). Indeed, although appealing to progressive Catholics in the West might normally upset more religiously conservative factions, Francis’ focus on social justice and status as the first non-European Pope has solidified his popularity in the world’s developing regions. Nevertheless, the challenge for the Pope moving forward is proving that he can maintain that unity in the long term. If Francis were able to continue to bring together such a diverse group of believers, he would further prove that religion can serve as a unifying alternative to divisive state politics.
Finally, unlike other celebrity figures—whether politicians, entertainers, or businessmen—Pope Francis is remarkably approachable. In order to remain relatable to middle and lower-income Catholics around the world, Pope Francis has opted for a more conservative lifestyle than his papal predecessors, wearing simpler garments, keeping the same pectoral cross from his time as cardinal, and living in the Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse rather than the more lavish papal apartments. In addition, Francis makes himself available for regular meetings with common folk, never forgetting his own humble origins in Argentina. Indeed, the Pope chose to spend his 77th birthday by having dinner with four homeless people near the Vatican. Pope Francis’ leadership style should serve as inspiration for leaders all around the world, who often become isolated from the people they are supposed to be serving. Through his actions as Pope thus far, Francis seems intent to ensure that he will never face such a problem.
Pope Francis has reenergized the Catholic Church and improved the institution’s reputation around the world. In the words of GK Chesterton, “If we mean by what is practical what is most immediately practicable, we mean merely what is easiest. In that sense St. Francis was very impractical, and his ultimate aims were very unworldly. But if we mean by practicality a preference for prompt effort and energy over doubt or delay, he was very practical indeed.” Pope Francis’ revolutionary papacy has inspired not only Catholics but individuals of all faiths and nations around the globe. In a modern, turbulent world, Francis has proven that religion can be a stabilizing, forward-looking force rather than the divisive, retrograde institution that many saw it as before. Whether Christians, Muslims, Jews, or otherwise, Pope Francis’ leadership has helped countless individuals renew their spirituality and once again become proud people of faith.
Evan Draim is a freshman from Alexandria, Virginia, tentatively majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.