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100 days: Pope Francis off to invigorating start

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  • June 23, 2013

As we mark Pope Francis’ first 100 days in office, it would be impossible to argue that they have been anything other than successful. Some might say wildly successful.

The Argentine-born Pope has brought in great change in style at the Vatican and across the entire Church with his humility, humour and love, especially for the poor and disenfranchised.

On March 13, when it was clear he was going to be elected, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, retired Archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil said to him: “Do not forget the poor.” The new Pope took that advice to heart and, as he later discussed, it influenced his decision to take the name Francis.

But will Francis also usher in change in substance, not just style, as to how the Vatican runs? How will he tackle social questions within the Church? Obviously incredibly intelligent, Francis’ past actions indicate a tendency to take a humanist approach, not necessarily a theological one, to such questions.

Following a private meeting in the Vatican, there was a leak earlier this month of the Pope’s comments in which he was reported to have said he has a mandate for reform. But reform has many grades and levels, and we’ll return to this point in a moment. First it should be noted one of the greatest achievements of Pope Francis so far is that he has invigorated Catholicism and Christianity simply by being himself.

Empty pews and lighter collection plates indicate the Pope inherited a Church that has lost relevancy to many Catholics. Judging by numerous personal conversations and widespread media reports over the past 100 days, the relevancy pendulum may be swinging back, thanks to Francis.

For too long, when many people talked about the Church it was only in the negative: Abuse of children by priests, bishop cover ups, denial of same-sex marriage, denying women the same rights inside the Church as men. The anti-Catholic diatribes went on and on. Those issues may not have gone away, but Francis has gotten people — Catholic or otherwise — to start thinking and talking about the good things the Catholic Church represents, too.

When a 76-year-old man who is missing half a lung gets down on his hands and knees to wash the feet of prisoners — some who are women, others who are Muslim, and all who have done bad things — it is a powerful symbol. And not just to Catholics, but all people.

The Pope is signalling to the world that we are so much better off following the teachings of Jesus Christ. When the world puts humility, love and forgiveness ahead of money, superiority and retribution, it is a better place.

When a man who once rode public transit and made his own meals as a cardinal in Buenos Aires refuses to move into the palatial papal apartments surrounded mostly by the sometimes-Machiavellian bureaucrats of the Roman Curia, it sends a signal. Choosing to live in a simple apartment in a building shared by others is a symbol that, though he is Pope, he is human and one of us, not a leader who lets a few select insiders whisper in his ears. Just like Jesus, he places God’s words above those of the Pharisees.

When he celebrates Mass each weekday morning with different invited guests, it further tells us that he wants to hear from more than just the Curia. As is written in Proverbs 11:14: “Where there is no guidance, a people falls; but in an abundance of counsellors there is safety.”

It must be noted that Francis has pointed out that the Curia includes some very good and holy people. As is his custom, he accentuates the positive while trying to get to the root of a problem. By personally phoning a newspaper vendor on the other side of the world in Buenos Aires to cancel his subscription, he sends a signal: regardless what your work is, it is of value and you deserve respect. It should make us think next time we buy cheap clothing manufactured in those Asian sweatshops.

By speaking plainly and in the vernacular, Francis talks to us, not at us. He says things like: “Satan rips us off” and “money has to serve, not rule” and we must build bridges like Saint Paul, not walls, between Christians and other faiths.

Simply speaking off-the-cuff, and not from script, tells us so much more about the man. He may be uncomfortable speaking publicly in languages other than Italian or Spanish, but he is certainly so comfortable in his skin that he can “wing it” when giving homilies and speeches. One cannot fake this: what he says is what he believes and comes from his heart.

Which brings us back to reform. Again, how does one define reform? It refers to changes that improve and strengthen. It does not mean complete overhaul. The Church has existed for 2,000 years and it has faced reform many times, but the teachings of Jesus Christ remain the foundation of the Church and always will.

In early June in a private meeting with a Latin American religious group, Pope Francis allegedly said in a candid moment that he is facing resistance from a network of “corruption” and a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican. Using those terms together opened him to some criticism for his penchant of making off-the- cuff remarks. Regrettably, the leak came from a private meeting with the delegation of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious, known as CLAR.

Typically, when leaks like this occur, it changes the behaviour of the speaker, making them much more careful in the future. Was it leaked by an over-zealous person in CLAR, or was it leaked by someone in the Curia who would prefer the independent-minded Pontiff stick to script? Either way, it was the first blemish on the new pontificate.

If what he is quoted as saying is accurate, it tells us more about the Pope. First, he acknowledges the open-secret that homosexuality in the Vatican exists. Second, when the Pope suggests there is corruption in the Vatican bureaucracy, there is every reason to believe something will be done. Indeed, before leaving office Pope Benedict XVI, whom history will remember as far more a reformer than he is given credit for today, commissioned a report about Vatican corruption following the so-called VatiLeaks scandal. That report is now in the hands of Pope Francis.

“The reform in the Roman Church is something that all cardinals asked for in meetings prior to the conclave. I asked for it too,” the Pope is quoted as saying in that private meeting that was leaked. “The reform can’t be done by me... I am very disorganized, I’ve never been good at that. But the commission’s cardinals will carry it out.”

Though mainstream media played down this part of the meeting, Francis also spoke about the “restorationists,” the very rigid conservative group who object to any reform except for looking to the past. It is clear that he will not turn the clock back, and he is listening to many voices today, starting with the commission of cardinals.

The commission was announced April 13 when Pope Francis named an international panel of eight cardinals to advise him on Vatican reform. Though other commissions of cardinals have been set up by popes, this one is special and is being referred to as Francis’ de facto cabinet, because it is made up of men from all over the world with only one member being a full-time Vatican official.

The Vatican Secretariat of State said the Pope established the group to “advise him in the government of the universal Church and to study a plan for revising the apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia.” The language in that statement is interesting because it makes clear the Pope established the commission on his own and it hints that reform may go beyond the Roman Curia and to governing the “universal Church.”

The first 100 days of Pope Francis have been exciting and invigorating. Actions so far indicate rejuvenation and change will come under this Pope. Whether it will be too much change for some or not enough change for others remains to be seen.

Francis exemplifies the description of a wise leader who once reportedly said: “There go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader.”

Judging by his first 100 days, Francis’ papacy will be a great success because his actions show he is not a leader who would implement reckless change or allow the status quo to remain simply because it is entrenched.

All Catholics, except perhaps some in the Roman Curia, have much to be thankful for in Pope Francis.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca.)

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