Francis: People’s Pope, four years on

Francis: People’s Pope, four years on

On March 13, 2013, the world watched an unknown Argentinian emerge on the balcony at St Peter’s in Rome. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (who chose the name Francis) had been elected pope after Benedict XVI unexpectedly resigned weeks earlier. From that moment, it was clear something was different. By RUSSELL POLLITT.

Those who know and watch the Vatican would have seen that this new pope was dressed differently, did not follow the normal procedure and was much less formal. That night was the beginning of a seismic shift in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is regularly referred to as the “reformer” of the church. He has had an impact well beyond the church and some say he is one of very few voices of reason against the right-wing populist politics that has gripped the globe. What has Pope Francis managed to do and where is he still not getting it right?

To take stock of Francis’ papacy, it is important to remember that he comes from the global south. For centuries, the Catholic Church has been headed by European pontiffs. The Catholic Church is conceived differently in Latin America. While the church in Latin America is not without its own problems, it is a church that is engaged in the political narratives of countries, with ordinary people and their concerns and, importantly, with the welfare of the poor. The murdered Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero (whom Pope Francis will canonise – possibly later in 2017), is an icon of the Latin American church. Romero spoke out against social injustice, poverty, assassinations and torture. He was assassinated by the ruling elites in 1980.

The Latin American church that Bergoglio came from was fearless in speaking out in favour of the poor and the marginalised. They stood courageously against corruption. It was a church that stood on the side of victims. It was a church too which had its fair share of finger-wagging from Rome. The strong impetus to implement the watershed Second Vatican Council by the Latin Americans was not always looked upon approvingly. The Latin American Catholic Church was actively involved in society and sought to accompany people – especially the marginalised.

The church in the global north, on the other hand, was often locked up battling internal factions over the implementation of Vatican II. It is not surprising that Francis, who had much more extensive pastoral experience, and knew far better how the poor in the Third World struggled to survive than his two immediate predecessors, would be different.

Pope Francis has shaken up the Catholic Church and become a leading voice for some of the most pressing global issues. He has tried to re-orient the global Catholic Church and change the conversation so that it becomes less inwardly focused. Before his election, the Catholic Church often focused on a rather narrow range of issues: contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and gay marriage. The narrative is different now. Francis has not only opened conversations up but also shone the spotlight on issues such as poverty, migration and refugees, the economy and the protection of environment.

He has shifted, and continues to shift, the public profile of the papacy. You should know that things were changing when a rock music magazine features him on their cover. In 2014 Rolling Stone magazine published a 7,700-word profile of Francis. Contributing editor, Mark Binelli, wrote: “In less than a year since his papacy began, Pope Francis has done much to separate himself from past popes and establish himself as a people’s pope.”

Francis certainly is the “people’s pope”. There is little sign four years later that interest in the pope is waning. He continues to get media attention – from church and non-church media. Opinion polls around the world still give him high approval ratings.

Approval of the pope is not just in the confines of the Catholic Church. Many people from other Christian denominations – and indeed other faiths and no faith at all – are interested in what Francis says and does. Here is a story that illustrates this: No too long ago a group of people from different religious backgrounds were sitting bemoaning the state of leadership in South Africa and the world. When the mood got grim and someone suggested that there is just no leadership, a Muslim participant surprisingly said (ahead of the Catholics!): “There is one leader we can all look up to, our father Francis!”

Pope Francis has also played a leading role in global politics. He is not a politician but a moral leader and, on that basis, he helped facilitate a dialogue between the US and Cuba. In late 2014 the US and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations and both acknowledged that the pope and Vatican’s diplomatic machinery had made an invaluable contribution to the thawing of tensions between the two.

The Vatican, under Francis, continues to speak to the Chinese in the hope that a breakthrough in relations can be achieved. In 2015, global leaders, who were gathered in Paris for the UN-sponsored climate change summit, acknowledged the pope’s role in drawing attention to the urgency of dealing with climate change. Many believe that the pope’s voice, especially clear in his Encyclical Letter entitled Laudato Si’  on the environment, led to a stronger push for a more stringent agreement to be reached.

Inside the church Francis has not only redirected the conversation but also given people of differing opinions the space to express their opinion. He has placed much emphasis on “synodality” – meaning that he is not the CEO that makes all the decisions but he, together with bishops throughout the world, govern the church. He wants to consult and make decisions with his fellow bishops. He sees himself as a bishop among bishops. He does not refer to himself as “pope” but as the “Bishop of Rome”.

Pope Francis is less concerned about keeping up the façade of unity; he is more interested in hearing what people really think and feel. Unity for Francis is not the same as uniformity. In 2014 he called the bishops of the world together to discuss family life. He expressly told the bishops at this sitting of the synod that he wanted to hear what they thought and that nothing was taboo. This made some feel rather uneasy because it created an official space and place where people could speak their minds. And speak their mind they did. It became quite clear that there was a gulf between church law and lived experience. For the first time in a long time, bishops publically differed with each other – sometimes heatedly – and, for Francis, this was okay. It was real. It was the truth.

In 2016 Pope Francis released the document he wrote based on the synod. The document, called Amoris Laetitia, has created much discussion because the pope has opened the possibility of a conversation about divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receiving communion.

For many, perhaps even the majority of Catholics around the world, this is a way that Pope Francis has directly touched their lives: by giving them a second chance. Many see his merciful approach as something long overdue. Many also know that what he has said is already happening all over the world anyway, albeit quietly.

His own deep understanding of the messiness of human life and relationships comes through in the document. He wants the circumstances of individuals who are in difficult positions to be taken into account; he puts the human person first, not any black and white law. The document, significantly, marks a change in tone and pastoral approach. It covers – with deep insight and understanding – many facets of human life. It is not a document of new doctrines but rather one that raises issues and concerns and, no doubt, continues the conversation the pope wants Catholics all over the world to have.

Some strong voices have expressed concern about Amoris Laetitia. They believe that the pope’s merciful stance is a betrayal of the church’s teaching on marriage and its sacramental disciplines. Some senior hierarchs have pressed the pope to clarify his position and one of them has even accused the pope of being in error. While one might conclude that he has failed to bring all the bishops (and clergy) together, he certainly has not failed in making many people (who felt that they had been cast out onto the margins of the church) feel welcome again. Bishops and clergy have never all been in agreement anyway; that’s a fallacy some push to discredit Francis.

The small group that opposes the pope will continue to speak out and occupy more space in the media (which inflates their voice) than they have in reality. Francis seems, for the most part, unperturbed, and will continue to do what he is doing. He is set on changing minds and hearts.

As with any leader, there is light and shadow. Just last week, in an interview with German-based Die Welt, Pope Francis indicated that he was willing to converse on the issue of ordaining married Catholic men to the priesthood to combat the shortage of priests. He made it clear that this did not mean he was suggesting the discipline of celibacy for priests is scrapped altogether.

This is not the first time that the topic of married priests has been broached in the Catholic Church. Previous popes would not entertain ordaining married Catholic men. In 1980 John Paul II allowed certain Protestant ministers to be ordained priests if they converted to Catholicism. That was where the conversation ended. While this is an important conversation to have, the real issue which the pope has spoken about but done nothing to change is the training of Catholic priests. The current system needs serious reform.

Linked to the issue of clergy is the horrendous sex-abuse scandal that rocked the church. Pope Francis set up a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to deal with this issue. He pledged a zero-tolerance approach. But things have been slow to get off the ground. Just last week a victim of abuse and member of the commission, Marie Collins, quit the commission in frustration. Some conservative voices said it was the pope’s fault. Collins fired back saying that it was not the pope who was the problem. She said the problem was the bureaucratic resistance to the commission’s work. Pope Francis obviously needs to do something with his staff if he wants his zero-tolerance policy to have integrity.

Last year Pope Francis set up a commission to study the possibility of women deacons in the church. He has repeatedly said that he wants to boost the role of women in the church. He has ruled out the possibility of women priests but has not done much more to give any woman a senior position in the church. All the decision-making power in the church is in the hands of men. In the few places where, perhaps, he could have given a woman a more high-powered position, he has not. He could have, for example, appointed a woman as the new press spokesman for the Vatican. The previous spokesman was a priest, the new spokesman is a layman. Why not a laywoman?

One of the things that the cardinals who elected Francis wanted was a reform of the church’s curia, the Roman offices. One of the biggest headaches for the Vatican was the Vatican Bank. There was no transparency and no accountability. Pope Francis has tried to overhaul the Vatican’s financial system but, to date, is still struggling to make transparency and reform stick. There has still been no audit conducted by a reputable auditor. We are still waiting to see comprehensive financial statements.

No leader – or pope – will ever be free of critique or controversy. That’s just how it is. While Pope Francis has probably done more to transform the church in the last four years than has been done in the last three-and-a-half decades, he still has a long way to go. One of his biggest challenges will be to ensure that bishops and priests around the world implement his vision of what it means to be the church: engaging, accompanying and championing those on the peripheries of the church and society.

Has Pope Francis succeeded? Absolutely. Has he always got it right? Certainly not. DM

Photo: Pope Francis has his picture taken during a visit to the Roman Parish of Santa Maddalena di Canossa, near Rome, Italy, 12 March 2017. EPA/ANGELO CARCONI


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