As we progress into the Holiest Week of the Christian Liturgical Year, The Catholic Church is wearing a fresh, new face in Pope Francis. As pledged by the Holy See, The Cardinals from across the Globe selected he Successor to the Throne of Saint Peter before Easter. Whether you were Catholic like me, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or indifferent, all eyes seemed sharply focused on Rome, as the Holy Conclave of Cardinals met to Elect Pope Francis the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. And it didn’t take very long!
The odds-on-favorite — and YES, there was a line in Vegas– was for more if the same: An aged but learned, UBER- Conservative European to fill those sick red loafers of Cardinal Ratzinger a/k/ a Pope Benedict. A little-known, humble Argentinian Jesuit “friend of the poor” was hardly a blip on the radar screen, notwithstanding the fact that he was the alleged “first runner up” last time a Pope was elected. My friends, I am absolutely thrilled to tell you, in my heart, I feel Like History has been made.
You see, in my experience as a Catholic in America, I feel like the over-arching major criticism of the Roman Catholic Church is that Our faith and The Vatican is the last remaining vestige of the Roman Empire (in the sense that it is viewed as an archaic institution, headed by a figurehead-Emperor who is anointed a job he is expected to hold until his death.) From the moment Cardinal Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict) resigned– as opposed to DIED– I feel the Catholic Church has been distancing itself from that dangerous, antiquated stereotype.
Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio on December 17th, 1936, is the 266th and current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, elected on March 13, 2013. As such, he is both head of the Church and Sovereign of the Vatican City State. His upbringing was relatively non-remarkable and very humble. In his youth, he attended the technical secondary school Escuela Nacional de Educación Técnica and graduated with a chemical technician’s diploma. His only known health crisis occurred in his youth, at the age of 21, when he suffered from life-threatening pneumonia and cysts and had part of a lung removed a a result. Bergoglio studied at the Archdiocesan Seminary Inmaculada Concepción in Villa Devoto, Buenos Aires City, and, after three years, entered the Society of Jesus on March 11th, 1958.
Pope Francis is a first in many ways. He’s the first Latin American Pontiff; the first Jesuit; the first named Francis — and most excitingly the first non-European in 1,272 years. (Incidentally, the last time a non-European led the Roman Catholic Church was the year 741, when Pope Gregory III, born in Syria, ended his 10-year reign.
As stated, Pope Francis is the first Pope to have been a Jesuit (a Jesuit is a member of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order). The Jesuits are among the most active Roman Catholics and engage in a wide range of activities, whether it be working on social justice issues or providing education and training priests. They are very connected with and focused on the poor and disenfranchised. They are extremely NON-PRETENTIOUS and definitely considered to be a “friend of the common man”.
It is my hope and desire that the new Pontiff may begin to lead a more progressive Roman Catholic Church. All speculation is premature at this point, but I found it quite encouraging that Pope Francis, in an interview just last year, suggested that the Catholic Church’s rule that priests be celibate “can change”. He candidly discussed his own experience of being tempted by a woman as a young seminarian. Francis was “was dazzled by a girl I met at an uncle’s wedding,” so much so that he “could not pray for over a week” because he could not help thinking of her. As a result, the young man had to “rethink what (he) was doing.” It is encouraging that the new Pontiff will even discuss such mundane and innately human matters since his predecessor, Pope Benedict did not bring the topic to too much light. Pope Francis does note that “the discipline of celibacy stands firm,” and priests should quit if they can’t abstain from sex. Guess we will have to wait and see.
Again, everything is speculative at this point, but it seems as though Pope Francis is progressive on another front: He is attempting to enhance the relationships between the Catholics and Muslims. Since the Crusades, the relationship between the two religions have improved, but seemed to screech to a halt under Pope Benedict XVl. This progress apparently came to a standstill in Germany in 2006 when Pope Benedict said, “Mohammed brought ‘evil and inhuman.’” As a result, some Catholic churches were attacked and Muslims were furious. Since that admitted mistake, Benedict traveled with Muslims in 2009to the site where Jesus was born and noted that Catholics and Muslims shared similar backgrounds. The relationship appeared to be drastically improving and the Vatican is hoping Pope Francis can pick up where Benedict left off.
In any event, at least in this Catholic’s view, Pope Francis has emerged as a charismatic, energetic, fresh, new face on the Roman Catholic Church from the moment he chose to be a maverick and ride in a Jeep, as opposed to the famous, bullet-proof “Pope Mobile”. But it didn’t stop there…
…On Palm Sunday, March 24th, the Pope, again, veered off course and sprang forth with some unexpected, non-traditional actions and gestures that really pleased the crowd. When he left the Hotel after being elected Pope, His Holiness stopped to pay his bill. You can almost “see” the embarrassment from his fellow Cardinals when he partakes in such a common practice. When asked why? Pope Francis said, ‘Because it was unpaid.’ …WOW! While riding his Jeep-like “Pope Mobile,” amidst all the wobbling and grasping for the holding bars, the Pope still managed to awe the crowd. According to the USA Today, Francis even climbed down from the vehicle, kissed a woman in the crowd and chatted briefly with her, and another man in the crowd leaned over a barrier to squeeze the pontiff on a shoulder — an unheard of familiarity in the previous pontificate of the reserved Benedict XVI. Lastly, a dry eye was hard to find as Pope Francis spotted a severely disabled fully-grown man, bundled in a blanket and being cradled like an infant, jumped out of his jeep and kissed the afflicted on his forehead.
With the nickname “the unpredictable Pope,” Pope Francis has enabled news stations to identify a heartwarming story everyday. Just this week, the Pope held a major ceremony at a prison chapel (as opposed to St. Peters.) The prison, located on the outskirts of Rome, is a holding place for young offenders. The reason for this change-up? Pope Francis “washed and kissed the feet of 12 inmates, in a gesture that commemorates Jesus’ humility towards his disciples before the Last Supper, on the night before he was crucified.” This is not a rare occurrence for the new Pope, as he has been seen previously washing the feet of Aids sufferers and meeting with street prostitutes in Argentina.
“He has a reputation for simplicity and for being utterly concerned about the poor,” the Rev. John Padberg, director of the Institute of Jesuit Sources at Saint Louis University. “In all of the upheavals in Argentina in previous years, no matter what had happened, that was one of his main concerns.” Pope Francis acknowledges the fact that the poor, the deteriorating relationship with the Muslim community, celibacy, and other binding issues are very important and potential change is not out of the question; in some instances, change is the best.
“The unpredictable Pope” has a become a genuine, fine representation of a public figure with impeccable morals and values, who is not loathe to change. At a time when the Roman Catholic Church needs all the “Positive PR” it can muster, I feel like Pope Francis is right on time. What about you?
J.L. Mann Cromer, Jr. Served as the only True Independent Member of the South Carolina General Assembly from 1990- 1998. Currently, he is serving in his 14th year as Reading Clerk for the S.C. House. Additionally, Bubba is a General Practice Attorney in Columbia, South Carolina, concentrating in Probate & Estate Planning, Criminal Defense and Personal Injury Law. Bubba was confirmed in the Lutheran Church in 1974, and converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1984 when he again completed confirmation and received his First Communion at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Columbia, S.C. Currently, he is a Parishioner at Sacred Heart RCC in Brevard and St. Joseph’s in his hometown of Columbia.