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Pope Francis inspires incredible optimism

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Saturday, April 19, 2014, 9:50 p.m.
 

Hands up and grinning, 77-year-old Jorge Bergoglio holds court like any veteran storyteller, but when he rises in St. Peter's Square, about 735,000 people applaud.

The doors to a millennia-old institution stained by financial mismanagement, sex abuse and resolute secrecy were thrown open last year by a cheerful, Argentine pontiff who takes selfies, rides the bus, waits in line and insists on living as he believes every Catholic should — simply.

Kindness, mercy, inclusion. His is a humble reign.

The first Jesuit, first Latin American and first with his name, Pope Francis exudes love and inclusiveness the way his predecessors radiated wisdom and encouraged philosophical debate. One year later, he remains the subject of intense interest.

Experts say the Vatican's message hasn't changed, but its method has.

“John Paul II was a philosopher. Benedict XVI wrote as a theologian. Pope Francis is a pastor,” Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said. “It's his compassion, his desire to share the suffering of others that sets him apart.”

Like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, the 266th pope eschews his station, opting for a sparse apartment outside the basilica palace, making cold calls to world-weary fans and washing the feet of teenage Muslim and female inmates in a Holy Thursday ceremony last year that raised eyebrows worldwide.

“His witness is stronger than his words,” said Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, a University of Dayton professor and longtime member of Vatican committees. “He speaks in a way the ordinary person understands, still totally in line with Catholic doctrine, but without pretense. With only love.”

He made headlines last summer with the declaration, “If a person is gay and is seeking God and is of good will, who am I to judge?” And again two weeks ago when he took personal responsibility for the church's apathetic response to decades of documented pedophile priests.

“His view of the human situation isn't full of transgressors; he sees us all as wounded,” said Stephen Pope, theology professor at Boston College.

That's a tough sell for those who view the church in black-and-white norms, he said.

“There are a lot of conservative Catholics who read that and think, ‘But you're the pope. It's your job to judge.' ”

‘A careful balance'

Media spectacles aside, scholars say Francis' most significant reforms were the promotion of eight counselors to oversee the Roman Curia, the Vatican's governing body, and the establishment of an economic department to police transparency and accountability at the grossly mismanaged Vatican bank.

Stephen Pope likened Francis' slow-moving reforms to painting a battleship with a paintbrush.

“It's a careful balance,” Pope said. “He needs people who know the bureaucracy but aren't possessed by it. Those aren't relationships you want to rush.”

In February 2013, Benedict XVI became the first pope to surrender the papacy of his own volition in more than 700 years. Though he made some adjustments to the Curia, scholars say his rule failed to effect real change. He now resides in a Vatican monastery.

“The type of people (Benedict and John Paul) put into political power didn't spend much time in the community; they were mostly straight from pontifical college,” said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, a progressive advocacy group. “They were much more likely to be Opus Dei than to spend time in a soup kitchen.”

Francis deftly handles church politics, said Manuel Vasquez, religious and Latin American scholar at the University of Florida, and insists those below him model tenants of piety and constant concern for others.

“One of the ways to ventilate these scandals is to make sure the church is held accountable,” he said.

The Rev. Stephen Avella, history professor and priest at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said Francis' actions to rectify any wrongdoing are meaningful, particularly to those inside the church.

“A lot of his moves lately are giving the bishops heartburn,” Avella said.

Francis dispensed the “bishop of bling,” Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, in March when reports surfaced that he spent $43 million on his residence in Limburg, Germany. His resignation prompted Atlanta's Archbishop Wilton Gregory to publicly apologize for his upscale mansion, built for $2.2 million.

“Francis goes into some of the most difficult positions of the church and makes them personal again,” Zukowski said. “He leads by example. He cares about how we feel.”

Intense scrutiny keeps the pontiff on his toes. More than 13 million people follow the pope through Twitter accounts in English, Italian, Portuguese, French, Latin, Polish, German and Arabic.

That connectedness extends to personal visits as well, said Bill Thorn, Vatican consultant and communications professor at Marquette.

“I met Benedict and John Paul before him,” Thorn said. “They seemed like great men, too, but of the three, Francis is the only one whose eyes stayed with mine. When he's with you, he's really with you.”

Evolving stances

In the court of public opinion, Francis has a long road ahead in better articulating the church's stance on social issues that prohibit many Catholics from participating in the religion they love.

Spanish-language broadcaster Univision released a poll in February of 12,038 Catholics in 12 countries that highlights extreme geographic differences. Divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages were not annulled cannot participate in Holy Communion.

Asked whether those actions constitute living in sin, overwhelming majorities in Latin America, Europe and the United States said no, while 75 percent in Africa answered yes.

The survey recorded a near-equal global split on whether priests should be allowed to marry or whether women can enter the priesthood. Nearly 80 percent of worldwide respondents supported the use of contraceptives, 57 percent support abortion in some cases, and majorities in every continent except the United States still oppose same-sex marriage.

A much smaller American sample also polled in February by the Pew Research Center found that more than eight in 10 U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of the pontiff, including half who view him very favorably. Worldwide, Univision recorded his approval rating at 87 percent.

Many of his most ardent critics hail from groups pushing for stronger leadership roles for women.

In a January address sponsored by the Italian Women's Centre, Francis spoke of sharing pastoral responsibilities but highlighted women's particular talents in the home.

“Pope Francis could say something and change would come, and come easily,” O'Brien said. “Instead, he spoke rather clumsily about women needing separate theology. What is that?”

The Rev. Paul Sullins, associate sociology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said he's seen a sizable bump in attendance at Mass and confession since Francis took charge.

“Many people comment that the pope gives them hope,” said Sullins, a former Episcopal priest who is married. “But that spirit of openness doesn't imply the Catholic Church is going to change its mind right away. I don't see any shifts in accepted practices, except in how the church addresses sex abuse. There can't be flexibility on that.”

O'Brien said he's hopeful Pope Francis' recent closed-door meetings and the Synod of Bishops assembly this fall will yield a softer approach to the realities of modern family life.

“Ninety-nine percent of Catholic women in the U.S. use some kind of contraception that a bishop wouldn't like,” O'Brien said. “And for the church to not have women making central decisions beside men? Well, that's just idiotic.”

Latin Americans more familiar with Francis as a cardinal and bishop were surprised to find the somewhat stern, more orthodox leader they knew from Argentina respond to social outcries with such empathy and grace, scholars say.

“There was this burst of enthusiasm when he was first elected, and from the progressive sector, almost elation,” Vasquez said. “There's a real tenor of happiness that the global church has changed. Others have a more hesitant, wait-and-see attitude.”

Plans to visit Israel, Asia and the United States this year and next will keep the septuagenarian in the spotlight.

“He may not be this totally radical, slum theologian, but he's a strong leader capable of inspiring incredible optimism,” Vasquez said. “For Catholics, for now, that is enough.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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