Elected in March of last year, Pope Francis has spent the past year making waves in the Catholic Church and in the secular world. Everything from his name to his highly circulated remarks on humility and tolerance has aroused speculation on what is to come for the Church.
Pope Francis, legally named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, named himself for Saint Francis of Assisi, as it is tradition for each new pope to choose his papal name. Francis of Assisi is known as having been a worldly man who became disenchanted with the excessiveness and debauchery of the earthly world. The rest of his life, he lived meagerly and humbly as a beggar and preached the importance of charity and tolerance.
The name is a wonderful olive branch to the people; it says: “The Catholic Church is abandoning the pomp & circumstance. It’s time to get back to the most important Biblical truth there is: love.” But interestingly enough, some are questioning the Pope’s motivation behind naming himself after the famous Francis de Assisi and the possible implications of his doing so.
“Has Jorge Mario Bergoglio considered why no pope has dared to choose the name of Francis until now? At any rate, the Argentine was aware that with the name of Francis he was connecting himself with Francis of Assisi, the world-famous 13th-century downshifter who had been the fun-loving, worldly son of a rich textile merchant in Assisi, until at the age of 24, he gave up his family, wealth and career, even giving his splendid clothes back to his father,” writes Hans Kung in an essay on the National Catholic Reporter.
However, the pontiff has not failed to live up to Francis of Assisi’s humble name, quickly abandoning the jewels and gold and larger-than-life, extravagant thrones that characterized the papacies of Benedict and John Paul II. He’s even swapped out their limousines for his small, 30-year-old Renault. He insists on carrying his own bags, and astounds people with his approachability.
The Pope recently garnered national attention when, during a mass in St. Peter’s Square on October 26th, a young boy climbed on to the altar and stood next to Francis. Francis proceeded to pat the boy on the head and place him on his own chair before continuing his sermon.
Indeed, Francis has rapidly gained a reputation as the “Pope of the People,” even saying mass in the language of the people, Italian, rather than in the traditional but archaic Latin used by his predecessors.
According to Colleen Curry of ABC News, “Pope Francis is the man.” And he does seem to be Last December, he married a couple in St. Peter’s Square and posed with them wearing a red clown nose in honor of the clown charity for sick children they were volunteers for. He uses his Twitter account, @Pontifex, to connect with his followers and remind them daily, in various languages, to trust in God and love the people around them.
Though some view the pope’s Twitter as an attempt at connecting with his modernizing church, others view it as just the opposite.
“Bergoglio shows the way to salvation on his @Pontifex account. He has millions following him but, like a true narcissist, follows only himself,” remarks Observer columnist Nick Cohen.
This past July, on a flight from Brazil back to the Vatican, Pope Francis made headlines when he was prompted by journalists about what he would do if there were gay, though not sexually active priests in the church.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” he told the reporters. “These people should not be marginalized.”
Cohen also took issue with this statement, commenting, on the Catholic Church’s stance against civil gay marriage and the Catholic belief that homosexuality is a sin, that “if he were serious about stopping discrimination, he would reverse both those dogmas.”
Cohen presumes that the pope can rewrite the Bible simply because he is the pope, and confuses non-judgment with full acceptance; whether or not the pope chooses to love everyone regardless of their sin, he still cannot decide what is and isn’t sin according to the Bible and according to the Catholic Church.
Regardless, the statement marks a grand transition. Until now, the Catholic Church avoided the subject of homosexuality both within and without the church, but the fact that Francis approached it with such honesty and love is refreshing and contrary to the widely held idea that Catholicism is inherently equivalent to intolerance.
Francis also went on to say that he was currently seeking out a greater role for women in the Catholic Church after Pope John Paul II rejected the idea of women ever becoming priests.
For the time being, however, the pope is working on diversifying the Vatican’s College of Cardinals, overlooking clergymen from the already overrepresented US and Britain to nominate men from countries such as Haiti, Nicaragua, and Burkina Faso.
“This reflects Francis’ desire to make the Church more universal and to correct imbalances,” said Gerard O’Connell, a Rome-based contributor to the online publication Vatican Insider.
On one occasion, Francis washed the feet of two women in juvenile detention, one of them Muslim, which was a major breach of tradition. Really, Francis was just practicing what he preaches. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, too, and it seems that with this action the pop is emphasizing that anyone can be a disciple, whether they be man, woman, or child.
In light of Francis’s wholehearted, love-driven crusade toward redirecting the Catholic Church, many Catholics are cautiously hopeful. If the long-overdue ideological reforms continue, the Catholic Church will be humbled and reinvigorated like it never has before.
“Is it possible that a pope and a Francis, obviously opposites, can ever be reconciled?” writes Kung, talking of an apparent disconnect between the extravagant, self-important idea of the pope and the idea of humility that the name Francis represents. “Only by an evangelically minded, reforming pope.”
According to the members of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis could very well be that pope.
A poll from ABC News/Washington Post showed that 92% of American Catholics view Pope Francis in a favorable light, and 95% of Catholics in general believe the church is headed in the right direction.
One of them, an Italian public employee named Attilio Cortiga, told the New York Times, “I feel like I am a new Catholic since he became pope.”