In the short six months since his election, Pope Francis’ simplicity, humility, and rejection of ostentation have all resonated with the secular world, followers of other religions and non-believers, and of course Catholics themselves.
Many have been struck not only by his words but his actions and gestures, from his emphasis on God’s love and mercy and peace-making efforts in Syria, to his out of the blue telephone calls and decision to shun the apostolic palace to live in the Vatican’s relatively modest guesthouse.
Many have been struck by not only his words but his actions and gestures — from his emphasis on God’s love and mercy and peace-making efforts in Syria, to his out of the blue telephone calls and decision to shun the apostolic palace to live in the Vatican’s relatively modest guesthouse instead.
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Images of him being driven from Rio airport in the back of a Fiat hatchback and taking delivery of a rusty old Renault 4 to use in the Vatican have only further endeared him to the public.
Vanity Fair’s Italian edition named him “Man of the Year” six months before the year had ended, and mainstream news agencies have been lining up to praise him. A commentator for MSNBC — not usually a pro-Catholic network — went so far as to describe him as “the best Pope ever.” Among Americans, he has a 79 percent approval rating. In Italy, it’s as high as 85 percent.
From the beginning, his outreach was having a positive effect. His emphasis on being Bishop of Rome rather than Pope was said to have prompted the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople to attend his inauguration — the first time that has happened since at least the Great Schism of 1054.
When the Pope called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassou, a spiritual leader of Sunni Islam, welcomed the appeal, held a similar day of praying and fasting for peace in his country, and proposed that the Holy See organize an interfaith meeting.
Jewish leaders have also been impressed. Rome’s Chief Rabbi Ricardo Di Segni said that while Pope Francis’ words to the Jews have not been new, “it is the force with which he expresses them, and his capacity of communicating them, that is astounding.”
Central to the “Francis effect” is his emphasis on God’s forgiveness and mercy, manifested in his reluctance to be judgmental of those struggling with sin. His frequent phone calls, many of which go unreported, is a very pastoral attempt to help people find solutions to their problems. As a cardinal, he was known for this outreach, as well as for living an austere life.
Partly as a result of this approach, the Vatican and clerical sex abuse scandals of recent years have all but evaporated, to be replaced by a pervasive mood of optimism and openness. “What has changed is the passing from a negative, judgmental Church into a positive, open Church,” noted Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi. “Pope Francis has spoken much about a non self-referential Church, of a Church on a mission, a Church that looks outside of herself to the whole world.”
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Previous Popes have always had such a global perspective, Lombardi added, and he praised Benedict XVI for his “serenity, faith, spirituality and extraordinary kindness,” but he believes that Francis’ uniqueness (he is the first Latin American pontiff, and the first Jesuit to be elected) “is bringing something specific in style and perspective, and it is something desired by the universal Church.” He said such qualities further “enrich” the Catholic Church and highlights especially Pope Francis’ missionary zeal.
To Catholics, he has stressed the importance of evangelization, peace, charity and concern and action for the poor, even so far as saying he wants a “poor Church.” He makes a point of returning to a specific number of core issues and concerns, as if to drum them home. The main ones are not to be self-absorbed and self-referential, to refrain from gossiping and speaking ill of others, and to go out to the margins of society and spread the gospel.
Those who work with him have been similarly impressed with his pontificate so far. One Vatican official told Newsmax that he’d sum up the pontificate with the word “mercy.” “His aim is to smother you with God’s love and mercy,” he said, “and it appears to be working.”
Francis has said this is “the time of mercy,” and on Sunday he said mercy is the true force that can save man and the world from the "cancer" that is sin.
As part of his pro-active approach, Pope Francis has begun reforming the Vatican’s outdated bureaucracy by establishing three advisory commissions, including a so-called Gang of Eight cardinals whom he knows well.
He has made few governing decisions so far, but many are expected this fall. His first key appointment, that of diplomat Archbishop Pietro Parolin as Secretary of State – essentially the Pope’s ‘deputy’ – is likely to help restore some of the Holy See’s international credibility and aid curial reform.
But for all his obvious qualities, not everyone is happy with the new successor of Peter. He faces increasing criticism from some traditionalist Catholics who feel slighted, judged and excluded because they like to celebrate the old Latin Mass.
They have also been offended by some of his teaching which they view as unclear, incomplete and confusing, particularly his comments on homosexuality and atheists. They are also uneasy about the way he eschews symbols of the Petrine ministry and protocol, and his seeming reluctance to speak out about key life issues and the redefinition of marriage.
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Once he does so, which is inevitable, many see this love affair with the secular world coming to an abrupt end.
But for now, the Vatican isn’t too concerned. “These are all debatable points and I’m not going criticize the Pope for not playing the hard line,” said the official.
“What’s important is that there’s been a tidal wave of positive feeling towards Francis,” he said, “and we’ve seen a lot of people coming back to the Church.”
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek, and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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