As a non-practising Catholic that only attends church at Christmas and Easter, (mainly for the hymns), Pope Francis interests me enormously; he is a breath of fresh air for the at times gangrenous Catholic Church. Ordained as Pope in 2013, he has unflinchingly spoken his mind and pushed for radical change in the Catholic Church, a move that has caused controversy and opposition, but also increased his popularity with many Catholics as well as non-Catholics. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had a tough time of it following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Benedict was the Michelle to John-Paul’s Beyoncé. Benedict resigned in 2013, leaving the papacy open to Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Francis is remarkable in many ways. Before beginning his studies to join the priesthood, he worked as a chemical technologist and a nightclub bouncer, now he stands outside the gates of heaven with St. Peter as his co-worker. He speaks seven languages, he is the first non-European pope in 1,272 years and he has denied himself the luxurious papal residency in the Vatican in favour of a smaller, more Franciscan abode. He has a papal twitter account with 7.92 million loyal followers; however, he only follows eight, who are all himself, but in different languages, including one Latin account with 402,000 followers – no Shakespeare lyrics for him. This is one of several attempts by Francis to bring the Catholic Church into the 21st century, yet sadly there are no tweets about his ham sandwich or Strictly, he solely tweets statements of encouragement and hope, such as: “Dear young friends, do not be afraid to give your all. Christ will never disappoint you” and, “Work is important, but so too is rest. Shouldn’t we learn to respect times of rest, especially Sundays?” Can’t knock that statement.
He chose to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi – a saint who lived the life of a hermit, one of self-imposed poverty. For Francis, this name represents his personal concern for the well-being of the poor. He believes that the poor are over-looked in discussions in the Church, amongst the constant arguments over abortion, homosexuality, and contraception. Francis ensured that he was ordained as ‘Francis’, not ’Francis I’ so as to deny any regality, supporting the hermit qualities he wants to exude. St. Francis is also associated with the respect and protection of the environment, an idea that Francis holds close. He believes that Christians should respect that which God has created for them, rather than exploit it for corporate gain. In June this year, Francis issued a papal encyclical on climate change entitled: Laudato Si’. In acknowledging this looming truth, Francis has recognised the authority of scientific research, a major statement for an organisation that maintains that the Earth was created in its entirety in seven days. He maintains that it is the insatiable appetite of mankind that is dragging the environment into such a state. Humans have to realise the difference between wanting and needing. This view is unquestionably true, and a very bold one for such a new and unestablished Pope. The encyclical, along with other bold statements made by Francis, are strongly opposed by conservatives both in and out of the Vatican. These actions uphold Francis’ aim to move the Church in the direction of one that is more personal, one that actually cares and connects with those who support it, rather than one that is entangled in the bureaucracy of a corporation.
One has to ask, what have Francis’ statements, for all their lexical weight, actually done? He manages to keep his statements vague enough to deny any actual structural changes to the Church that he wants to enact. His statements and encyclicals are impressive and forward thinking for such an ancient institution, and yet the synods held do not support his proclamations. How is Francis supposed to save the world single handedly? I suppose he has his nine twitter accounts to help out, but I am not sure how much they will do. Francis is also embroiled in the child-abuse scandal in the Church, which has utterly disgraced it over the past few years. He recently honoured a Belgian cardinal, who had covered up evidence of a Bishop’s abuse of his own nephew, with a place at a synod concerning family life. A decision that, for all of his positive actions, hints that in some ways he is still glued in the red-tape and cover-ups of the not so popular aspect of the Church.
Pope Francis has a immense job on his hands; he is trying to revitalise the core of the Catholic Church and uphold his own curious reputation, whilst continuing to spread the word of the Gospel, without a hint of hypocrisy. It is a tough job description, but if anything, Francis is definitely getting noticed for (mostly) the right reasons.
Illustration credit: Eimear Kearns