If I have said it once, I must have said it a thousand times: I love Pope Francis.
You might say he had me at “hello.” I love that he has broken the mold from the beginning, as the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years, the first pope from South America, the first Jesuit and the first to choose the name Francis. Like Francis of Assisi, this Francis has been an advocate and a servant of the poor, a man with enormous popular appeal and one who has not been afraid to take on the powers entrenched within the Vatican and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy.
Even as some of Pope Francis’ earliest decisions enchanted the public, they probably ruffled a few feathers inside Vatican City. He chose to remain in a modest hostel immediately after his election, and he paid his bill just like any other guest would have been expected to do. He purchased and has driven around Rome in a second-hand car. He has preferred simple, white vestments, dressing in a color more typical of Dominicans than Jesuits or Franciscans.
Yet even while he was establishing an unassuming tone, Francis began challenging church insiders from the start of his papacy. He has instituted reforms to increase transparency within the Curia, the very powerful and secretive inner circle that runs the Vatican. He also has demanded long overdue changes to the Vatican Bank, which has operated for decades and probably even centuries without many of the safeguards that other banking institutions typically require.
Prior to his recent visit to the United States, the pope made a stop in Cuba, a communist nation whose diplomatic relations with the U.S. recently were restored partly due to negotiations that Pope Francis helped to broker. Francis has chosen a less confrontational approach toward the Cuban authorities than Pope John Paul II, perhaps further encouraging the greater religious freedom that has developed during the term of Raul Castro.
Upon his arrival in the United States, Pope Francis remained true to character by riding in a Fiat and dining at a homeless shelter instead of with political dignitaries. When he spoke to Congress, he chose not to emphasize the church’s continued opposition to abortion, but rather highlighted the need for more compassionate immigration policies and better long-term environmental practices. He pointed to Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and Thomas Merton, the ascetic Trappist monk who lived in a monastery in Kentucky, as shining lights of American spirituality.
Shortly after the pope’s trip, some consternation was caused when Kim Davis -- the Kentucky county clerk who refused to grant licenses for same-sex marriages -- claimed that she had “met” with the pope. While Vatican spokesmen initially appeared to have been perhaps naively ignorant that Davis had even been among two dozen guests at one of the pope’s audiences, clearly someone inside the American Vatican embassy must have given their blessing for her inclusion. However, church officials in Rome were obviously discomforted that Davis had used the occasion as a portrayal of papal approval of her position. When questioned about whether a public official had the right to disobey a law which that person believed to be unethical, Pope Francis answered yes, although he chose not to address the particular circumstances related to Davis. To dampen the brouhaha that surrounded the controversy, the Vatican noted that Pope Francis -- who once famously replied, “Who am I to judge?” when asked a question regarding homosexuality -- had personally invited a gay, Catholic, Argentinean friend to one of his American papal audiences.
Perhaps more relevant to the pope’s current undertakings is opposition from conservatives within the Catholic hierarchy. Two years ago, the pope asked Catholic parishioners throughout the world to fill out surveys stating their opinions on such wide-ranging issues as divorce, gay marriage, abortion and birth control. Now in Rome, Pope Francis has gathered with Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals for a Synod on the Family, during which he has asked his fellow bishops to be open to the Holy Spirit and to speak with candor and courage. Even as some of his conservative colleagues might be gritting their teeth as they try to comply with his request, Pope Francis persists on the path that he believes Jesus would walk in the modern world.
John McColgan resides in Joseph.