Image via Shutterstock / giulio napolitano
As I pen this article the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics are celebrating Jesus Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for mankind so it’s only fitting that we get to know the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Given the global nature of the Papacy’s influence, it comes as no surprise that almost everyone around me – both physical and virtual – has an opinion about Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, otherwise known around the world as Pope Francis. So what is this guy like, where is from, why is he so old, and (the question that amuses me the most) is he a liberal or conservative Catholic? (The answer to the final question is that he is neither; he is simply Catholic).
Well I learned the following facts about him: Pope Francis lived a surprisingly humble life whilst serving as Cardinal in Buenos Aires. He chose to live in a simple apartment, he cooked his own meals and rode the bus to work (after the Conclave he even rejected the use of the papal limousine and caught the minibus back to his hotel with the rest of the cardinals). Cardinal Timothy Dolan from New York reported that when Pope Francis was elected, Vatican officials and staffers came forward to meet him but he politely refused, telling them, “Not now. The people are waiting”. Then he went to the balcony.
When I watched his first address the first thing I noticed was that Pope Francis looked nervous. I smiled to myself, thinking how overwhelming it must be to front up to such a large, expectant crowd and the world’s media as The New Pope, when just a few weeks ago he was probably preparing dinner in his simple Argentinian kitchen. I can just imagine him boiling a pot of rice for dinner. Suddenly this old man’s job description was a whole lot longer – and through no campaigning on his part. Unlike politicians who run for office, asking for our vote and so putting themselves forward for scrutinity, this man’s credentials, mistakes and theological values are now being judged and – thanks to the internet and social media – by millions of people who have limited or no understanding of Catholicism. No wonder it took him a few moments before he could smile at the camera.
Yet despite his nervousness, I do believe he had a stellar first performance on the global stage. Bowing low before the crowd, he abandoned formalities and greeted everyone with a friendly ‘Good evening’. He acknowledged and asked everyone to pray for his predecessor Bishop Emeritus Benedict XVI. Then he asked the world a favour; to first say a prayer for him as the new Bishop of Rome. This upfront admission that the office of Pope was greater than he, and that as a leader he needed both God’s help and ours, was a powerful gesture of humility. I daresay that his simple request moved quite a few hearts – it certainly surprised me and won me over.
He also surprised people by calling a mass media conference only days after his election. There he acknowledged how essential mass media are – more so now than ever before. Perhaps this is a Pope who understands the digital age. While he wouldn’t have the desire or power to change any of the Catholic doctrine that has been discussed without abandon on social media (yes, this includes the ordination of female priests or the definition of same-sex unions as ‘marriage’), his opportunity to make waves shouldn’t be underestimated. His less formal mannerisms and eagerness to engage media indicate a desire for more transparency and trust between the Church and the public. His fervent love for the poor and adoption of the name Francis (after St Francis of Assisi) has also created an opportunity for the Catholic Church to highlight and increase its contribution to areas of social justice and provision of welfare.
I don’t have a catalogue of his accomplishments or a running sheet of his stance on specific social issues, but I don’t want to either. All I’d like to do at this moment is acknowledge that this man is someone who has been handed a rather big boat to steer. And to borrow the words a dear friend of mine posted on Facebook: he is man who’s trying to do his best – not for his glory but for God’s. Not for his own salvation, but for ours. Irrespective of our opinions on them, or our religious views, he deserves our respect, and most definitely our prayers.