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Easter Brings New Beginnings for Catholic Church

By Morgan M. Davis

ROME—Tens of thousands of pilgrims ventured to Rome for Pope Francis’s inauguration March 19. People from every country, race, and even religion packed into St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City to participate in the pope’s installation mass. Before beginning his celebration and sharing Communion, Francis made is way around the square in an open jeep, greeting visitors, kissing babies, and blessing a sick man. Colorful signs and flags from many countries, most predominately Francis’s native Argentina, shone in the sun against the bright blue sky. The cheers of well wishes for the new pope called to him in every language: Francis, Francesco, Francois, Francisco. 

The excitement and anticipation for the new pope, elected on March 13 after the unprecedented retirement of Pope Benedict XVI in February, was palpable. Local shopkeepers and residents noted that the overall elation of the crowd surpassed anything they had seen during Benedict’s papacy. If anything, things were edging back to where they were under Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor. John Paul, who served as head of the Catholic Church from 1978 until his death in 2005, enjoyed popularity around the world, and was known for being personable and engaging, quite the opposite of his more academically minded successor Benedict XVI.

While the relatively quick election of 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a lesser known Argentinian cardinal of Italian descent, as pope surprised many, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have responded with an enthusiastic hope that as pope Francis will repair some of the damage the Catholic Church has suffered in the past decade. For a church that has been condemned for questionable finances, medieval style secrecy, sexual scandals, and hypocrisy, Francis could offer reform. Francis is the first Latin American pope, a nod to the huge contingency of Catholics in Central and South America. He’s also the first pope to be a Jesuit, a more than 500 year-old male religious order known for its vow of poverty and focus on education and service.

Although he is far from condoning contraceptives, abortion, or the ordination of women priests, Francis has made steps in his first few weeks as pope to change attitudes around the Vatican. Choosing the name Francis alone created a stir of delight from Catholics, especially Italian Catholics. The pope’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, is the patron saint of Italy and popular with Catholics around the world. During his lifetime in the 1200s, St. Francis was known for his love of animals and the poor, forgoing the luxuries of his upbringing for a minimalist lifestyle. Pope Francis has attempted to emulate this attitude, leaving behind the typically outlandish papal garb and red shoes for simpler outfits and choosing to remain in his guest room at the Vatican rather than move into the more elegant papal apartments. Rather than refer to himself as pope, Francis has preferred the title “Bishop of Rome.”

“[His] name is very important for us,” said Julia Strenghetto, a young Italian who traveled to Rome from Padua to see the new pope. Strenghetto and her friends wear bracelets with Tau crosses. Also known as the cross of St. Francis, Tau crosses are simple wood crosses that more closely resemble a capital letter “T” than they do a traditional crucifix. “We love San Francesco,” Strenghetto said, calling the saint by his Italian name. “He’s simple and humble. We hope that [Pope Francis] will follow.”

“I have high hopes,” said Father Aloysious Kalyowa, a Ugandan priest in St. Peter’s Square during the installation mass. “He’s just like a pastor who’s among his people. He’s someone who’s living that hope and that courage.”

Father Shiju Cleetus of India agrees. “We are expecting he will renew the church,” Clettus said. “Surely [he] will help the church in the modern age.”

The new pope, who was born in Argentina to Italian parents, speaks impeccable Italian, and quickly won the hearts of his people with his wit and sense of humor. During his first press conference March 16, he adlibbed anecdotes, stirring chuckles and applause from the thousands of journalists gathered in the hall. While explaining how he came to choose his papal name, he reiterated his hopes for the church. “I’d like a poor church, for the poor,” Francis said. Before leaving the room, the pope personally greeted a handful of journalists, including one who brought him a glass for drinking mate, a traditional South American beverage.

Outside of his church, Francis immediately began making inroads with other faiths. The night of his election he wrote a letter of goodwill to the leader of Rome’s Jewish community, extending an invitation to attend his installation. Orthodox Catholics, who split from the Roman Catholicism led by the pope more than a thousand years ago, were also invited to attend the installation for the first time. Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I met with Francis before and after the mass, what many are interpreting as a strong sign of reconciliation and future collaboration between the churches. Francis also met with Islamic leaders, and called for greater dialogue between the faiths. “The Catholic Church is aware of the importance of the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions,” Francis said after his meeting with religious leaders.

Francis used Holy Thursday, the day that commemorates Jesus’s last supper with his apostles, to continue his outreach. During a traditional Holy Thursday mass, the celebrating priest washes the feet of usually 12 people, reenacting Jesus washing the feet of his closest followers soon before he died.  Francis chose to buck the tradition of having the feet washing in St. Peter’s Basilica or the Basilica of St. John Lateran, instead visiting a juvenile detention center. There, he continued his statement making gesture, using the symbolic opportunity of love and service to wash and kiss the feet of young offenders, including Orthodox Christians and Muslims, and more notably, women. Prior papal Holy Thursday services had restricted the honor to men. 

“This is a symbol, it is a sign.  Washing your feet means I am at your service,” Francis told those present.  “Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do, and I do it with my heart.”

Francis’s attitude is refreshing after a seemingly out of touch Benedict had little contact with average Catholics even before his papacy. Still, it’s highly unlikely Francis will be making sweeping changes during his papacy. Catholics that have called for the ordination of women priests, acceptance of same-sex marriage, and approval for abortion or even contraceptives will remain disappointed. While Francis is willing to reach out to the poor and reform some attitudes, his ideology of Catholic doctrine remains the same as past popes. As a cardinal, he condemned Argentinian leaders for backing the legalization of same-sex marriage, calling it "a destructive attack on God's plan." In Argentina Francis also publicly voiced disapproval of politicians making abortion more accessible and the free distribution of contraceptives. At the same time, behind closed doors the then-cardinal advocated for a compromise of legalized civil unions for gay couples. Francis’s official biographer has spoken out in his defense, saying "Bergoglio is known for being moderate and finding a balance between reactionary and progressive sectors."

At the least, it seems as though Francis may choose not to focus his energies on these doctrinal controversies, and instead focus on Catholic policies everyone can agree on, like service to the poor and interfaith outreach. Both Catholics and non-Catholics will wait in great anticipation for what this papacy could bring.

*****

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Morgan M. Davis is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Morgan M. Davis]

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