|Pope Francis ... the smiling pope|
Reflecting on the anger, bitterness and violence that punctuated much of the year just past, I resolved to start the new year with acknowledgment of some positive development. Some sign of hope, as it were. I found it in, of all places, the Catholic Church. Or rather, the Vatican.
Actually, to be specific, in the Pope.
Pope Francis, the people’s pope, has been a revelation and a one-man revolution within an organization
that has been entrenched in dogma and shielded by ceremony for centuries.
Since his surprise election to the papacy nearly two years ago,
the Argentinian prelate has seemed to revel in speaking and acting like a,
well, like a man of God. A least what my definition of such a person would be:
Humble, unassuming, honest, approachable, compassionate, non-
judgmental, empathetic and realistic.
Francis, the 266th pope, brought a positive note to the end of a brutally
negative 2014 by: (1) Convincing President Obama and Cuban President Raul
Castro to reestablish normal diplomatic relations between the United States and
Cuba, ending more than 50 years of pretending they weren’t neighbors; (2)
announcing that the Catholic Church would be committed to fighting global
warming. Diplomacy and science have not exactly been prominent issues for
popes for some time.
These actions came at the end of a year in which Francis consistently and
passionately criticized the culture of greed that has claimed much of the planet,
resulting in the very rich getting even richer and much of the rest of the
population struggling to simply exist. “The excluded are still waiting’” he has
said of the false promise of “trickle-down” economics.
To top it off, in case no one was paying attention, Francis, who has shunned
many of the papal trappings, used his Christmas address to the cardinals at the
Vatican to scold them for their personal ambition, pettiness and attitude of
superiority to the people they, in fact, are sworn to serve. In other words, time
to change your focus, fellas.
Along the way, indicating that the Catholic Church is not, as some
have suggested, totally anti-science, he has declared that the theories of evolution
and the Big Bang are, indeed, real, and can co-exist with the Church’s teaching
of Creation. “God is not a magician with a magic wand,” he has said.
He has also encouraged cardinals to be less-obsessed with birth control
and homosexualty (“Who am I to judge?”) and more committed to helping the
world’s poor. And he has moved decisively to remove more of the stain of sexual
abuse by priests that has been the most dominant issue associated with
the Church for several decades.
All of this has angered conservative Catholics and especially conservative
politicians who have counted on implicit papal endorsement for their views
(especially on social issues) for many years. Suddenly, the pope’s infallibility
on how we should treat each other and the planet we share is open to, not just
question, but outright challenge. Fox News is apoplectic.
So be it. As a leader with no armies, the Roman Catholic pope
can sway millions simply with his words and actions. Yes, the church is wealthy.
Yes, it has political influence. Yes, it has an investment in repairing its soiled
image and attracting new followers to replace those who left it because of the
priest sexual abuse scandal.
Still, whatever one’s religious views, I believe that sometimes a person comes
along and takes everyone by surprise by doing the unexpected. In Francis’ case,
by acting like a humble servant of his God, rather than like the exalted ruler of
some chosen group of people. Given the symbolic power of the position, this
I am sure the former cardinal from Argentina -- a supposedly safe,
compromise choice -- has many cardinals shaking their heads today and
wondering, “Tell me again; why did we vote for him?”
And that may be the most positive thing of all about Pope Francis. He
has begun a discussion within the Vatican, within the Catholic Church and, by
his involvement in global issues, throughout the world, on what our role is in
relation to each other. It may be a discussion that will reveal the hypocrisy
and greed that permeate today’s society. Perhaps it will even
answer the question of what it means to be thy brother’s keeper.
That’s pretty hopeful stuff to me.