Pope Francis’ Gentle Revolution

Angelo Franco


On March 28th of last year, 10 days after his papacy began, Pope Francis I visited a detention center in Rome and washed the feet of young offenders as part of a Holy Thursday Mass ahead of Easter.  Foot-washing is part of a Christian tradition that mirrors Jesus’s actions at the Last Supper during the time leading to his crucifixion.  But this time, Pope Francis set a precedent and tone for a reign of the Catholic Church sees such deeds not only as a slow move toward a more progressive outlook of its core values, but also as opportunities for marketability.  Pope Francis has created an image for himself and the Vatican that works like a well-oiled machine, with contradictions and incongruities, forward pushes and innovative stances due, in large part, to Pope Francis himself – his ideologies, background, and position within one of the most powerful forces in the world. 


Before he was Pope Francis, before seminary and being ordained, becoming bishop and eventually cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a chemical technician. Born of Italian-decent immigrants, he was raised in a household of very strict Catholics that held on to the traditional beliefs of the old world firmly in their stances.  This juxtaposition, it seems, is what makes Francis such as important figure today.  Even with the incredible speed in which he has managed to shake believers and skeptics alike, Francis has generally observed an equally orthodox attitude towards Catholic teachings, albeit with a somewhat more broadmindedness that borders on the reformist by the standards of the Church as we know it.  From a decisively focused stand on interreligious relations to controversial claims about contraception and homosexuality to political opinions about the Maldives, Francis both kindles and quenches hope with reverberating strength, which helps capture his image as a highly influential game-changer.


His biography is important, as is his name.  Francis chose the celebrated saint of Assisi to take as his regnal name because of the saint’s well-known dogma on the importance of helping the poor.  Francis of Assisi also happens to be the first Catholic leader to have traveled to Egypt, doing so with the intent of trying to end the Crusades.  His namesake is a vital model for Pope Francis.  Many before him have made claims about helping the poor, but his work with globally recognized centers of poverty, such as the slums of Buenos Aires and the favelas of Brazil, along with his upbringing in a developing country, lends him enormous credibility.  And the significance of his rearing cannot be underestimated.  Papal influence has been in decline for the last few centuries, yet Francis forges power in the newly found heartlands of Catholicism: the far west.


Where Europe was once the nucleus of the Catholic Church, religious practice in the old continent has seen considerable regression.  The insurgence of secularism and agnosticism has taken wide strides globally.  Forty percent of all Catholics now live in the Americas, and this shift in demographics has also reshaped the significance of having a New World Pope.  It gives him wider influence and stance on political and social issues because, it seems, he’s closer to home.  And there’s something very mystic in the way Francis subjects these doctrines, from old and new worlds, into sinuous molds that move with the flow of times. 


When he was Cardinal, Francis opposed gay marriage.  He does still.  But his opposition was, at the very least, politically smart.  He knew the Church could not simply win a fight against the liberal machinations that had recently modeled Argentine politics.  So instead he proposed legalizing gay unions as a reasonable and mutually beneficial solution.  Francis’s proposal was vetoed by a conference of bishops and never made it to the president’s desk.  Argentina would eventually legalize gay marriage. 



Pope Francis has also taken the traditional Catholic stance on other social issues that plague the modern faith, such as contraceptives and abortion.  He has been clear that life starts at conception, and that a truly Christian relationship must be intimate only in marriage.  And he once wrote a letter to the bishops of Argentina warning them that pro-abortion politicians should be ineligible for communion.  While the existence of this letter has not been proven, it has also not been denied.  Francis has also been a fervent supporter of the role of women in the Church, invoking the “female genius” and their importance within the workings of the Church.  But there doesn’t seem to be any hope for devout females wishing to become priestesses, at least not for now. 


Yet, there is an undeniable, if tonal, shift in the philosophies of the Church because Pope Francis, while not ambivalent, leaves enough wiggle room for discussion.  As pope, Francis is quoted as saying of homosexuals: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.”  And of women considering abortion because of poverty or rape: “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?”  He has administered communion to divorcees who are, by rule, not allowed to undertake the consecrated tradition.  The pope’s own sister is, indeed, a divorced woman.   And his stance on contraceptives is pragmatic at most, believing that they may be permissible to prevent disease. It is with that “but” at the end of his teachings that Pope Francis regales a rhetoric that could be changeable, molded to fit first century teachings into a 21st century world.  Perhaps one of the most reformist statements the Church has made in a long time was issued in August of last year when it was declared that homosexuality is not a sin, even if the Church does not condone gay marriage.


Traditionalists have taken notice.  There was a minor but significant uproar in December of last year when Pope Francis took actions against an Italian Franciscan order that practiced the Latin mass.  After a series of events and for a number of reasons, Pope Francis went as far as closing down the order and sending its students to other universities in Rome.  Critics argued that the pope’s actions were excessively harsh, and were alarmed at the pontiff’s swift crackdown on what many consider a hallow tradition.  In fact, his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI had been an admirer of the Latin mass, to the point where he even passed a decree allowing its wider use. The editor of The Catholic Family Views has been on a steady campaign to undermine Francis’s teachings and actions, going as far as saying that he would not let the pope teach his children religion.  Others still argue that Francis is such an easy leader to like and follow because of his warmth and charm when compared to his immediate predecessor, the rather uncharismatic Pope Benedict XVI, even though they both stand roughly on the same viewpoints regarding Catholic philosophies.  A few months after his papacy had begun, two traditional Catholic journalists penned an article titled “Why We Don’t Like This Pope” in an Italian newspaper.  Shortly after, they were fired.


But it is Pope Francis’ smart and carefully crafted responses that make him as influential as he has become.  That and perhaps the off-the-cuff remarks he often makes during interviews, many of which have been impromptu.  When one of the fired journalists who had authored the criticizing article fell sick, he received a personal call from the pontiff, much to his surprise, in which Francis informed him he was praying for his swift recovery.  On Benedict XVI’s decree on the Latin mass, Francis is reported as dubbing it simply as “prudent,” much like the resigned Benedict himself.  And he quoted financial troubles for the Franciscan order as the reason for its dismissal, feasibly putting into perspective a much kinder and reasonable approach.  The pope has also called for an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, a fairly rare occurrence, to take place in October of this year to discuss, among other things, modern challenges of the faithful such as sexual values and reproduction.     


This image as a charismatic leader has loaned the Vatican a wider reach into political and social issues.  Pope Francis markets himself as a charming and progressive sovereign while cleverly keeping in check the Church’s traditional morals and values, and the media cannot get enough of him because of it.  Perhaps he is simply a repackaged product of his predecessors, made to be marketable as viable merchandise and molded by the Vatican to suit its needs.  Or he may, indeed, be a truly astute potentate who is seeking to make inroads of his Church’s beliefs and promulgate them beyond the faithful. 


Whatever the case may be, Pope Francis has achieved a sort of rock star persona about his character that people cannot help their curiosity for him.  For such a man that is mysterious in many ways, private, and modest, Pope Francis has taken hold of the hopes and imaginations of many, and his slow but deliberate revolution seems to just be getting started.  


Author Bio:

Angelo Franco is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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