His public humility and authenticity help him build bridges across the political aisle
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013, the Roman Catholic Church took a turn for the better.
The 266th pontiff surely has his critics, though.
They range from certain conservatives being upset with his views on climate change, to some liberals seeking closure with regards to the clergy sex abuse cases—but everybody has their critics. Even Jesus had critics, and if he hadn’t, there would be no Church to build upon.
It does, however, beg the question of why Francis is such a popular pope.
I feel as though this question would be better framed as why Francis is so popular amongst secularists and the liberal Catholics. The answer lies in his everyday attitude. It’s not just one thing that Francis has done that appeased the mainstream media, or because of an article about what he said one time went viral. It’s relatively consistent. He’s been nicknamed “Pope of the people,” which highlights his strong emphasis on regular folk.
He appears to see himself as just one of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. From his decision to live in the smaller Vatican apartments to choosing plainer papal garments, these are actions seen by the public as humble. And let’s not forget that most recently he decided to ride through America in a Fiat instead of a limo, something security officials strongly advised against, for obvious reasons.
It’s also not as if these actions don’t translate into media coverage. While Francis is constantly in the spotlight, it was one phrase he said at the beginning of his papacy that caught mainstream attention. When asked for his thoughts on homosexuality, he replied, “who am I to judge?” This not only made the front cover of many news magazines shortly thereafter, but also made him Time’s “Person of the Year” and he received the same honour from The Advocate, a leading gay rights magazine.
Through this humble approach, Francis has helped alleviate some of the pressure surrounding hot-button issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. It was very common for the American Catholic clergy, prior to the Francis era, to constantly talk about why it’s important to discuss and maintain the Church’s position on the above-mentioned topics. But under Francis things have changed. He rightfully argues that Catholics can’t talk about these issues all the time because there are so many more things that are relevant for spreading the Catholic faith than just the big three issues.
It became even clearer that Francis would not tolerate constant discussion of those issues when he asked the American Cardinal Leo Burke to step down from his position as the Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, which is the highest level of judicial authority in the Church.
Burke was not only known for speaking out on the importance of these matters, but for becoming so political as to attempt to have pro-choice Catholic politicians forbidden from taking the bread and wine of the Eucharist, as well as highlighting the Republican choice as the only legitimate option for American Catholic voters in the elections.
Recently, from Sept. 22 to Sept 27, the Roman Pontiff visited the United States on a six-day trip that began in Washington D.C., stopping in New York City and finishing in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families.
While in Washington, Francis became the first pope to address Congress, speaking firmly about his thoughts on a number of key issues. Just as he did with his papal encyclical on the environment in July, he reiterated in his speech that climate change is a serious issue that needs to be tackled. He spoke about the problem of idolizing money, pointing to many businesses that wish to survive solely for the purpose of making money and not for positive change in the world. He also urged people to “protect the vulnerable,” which was interpreted as a pro-life message to supporters of abortion and euthanasia. But as mentioned before, Francis doesn’t push these issues.
He wants people to care and value life more than push his positions on those who oppose the Church’s views, and that is one of the many reasons why he’s liked by both conservatives and liberals. He maintains traditional Church doctrine, but with a certain liberal spirit that is attractive to the secular world. Oh, and let’s not forget he’s said—more than once—that atheists can go to heaven if they do good work.
But why are we even talking about the Pope if he’s just the leader of only a part of Christianity? The statistics speak for themselves. The Catholic Church represents nearly 60 per cent of the Christian Church, and with dialogue on the rise, it’s possible that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches could merge in our lifetime. And let’s not forget the closer unity between Anglicans and Catholics that was created under pope Benedict XVI.
Forbes magazine lists the pope as the fourth most powerful person in the world, only behind the presidents of Russia, the United States of America and China. So it’s safe to say that Francis is going to have a lot of influence not only on the Catholic Church but on Christianity as a whole, not to mention worldwide attitudes, beliefs, and actions that are adopted by people because of the Pope’s message and conduct. He’s also generated a willingness for Catholic comedians such as Stephen Colbert to always talk about him and American Catholicism as it relates to and impacts politics.
Let’s also not forget that as young people, we’ve barely lived through a couple of papacies. Prior to Benedict, John Paul II had a generally good legacy as pope, leading the Church for 27 years from 1978 until his death in 2005. John Paul II faced different issues than Francis does today and it’s the same for popes in all different periods of history. So to say Francis is the most popular pope in recent history might be a little far-fetched because we’ve only had three popes in the past 37 years and counting.
What we can agree upon is the fact that he’s bringing change to a church that hasn’t always practiced what it preached.
From speaking out and taking action against the sex abuse scandals to reforming the Vatican bank and living like an ordinary man, Francis has done what nobody thought could be possible: appease both liberals and conservatives in order for everyone to work together in the name of Christ to make the world a better place filled with love.