I am not Catholic, nor do I have any great affection for the Church as a powerful institution. And yet, I, like many others, find myself fascinated by the new pope. Elected just over one year ago, Pope Francis has been making headlines as a radical and progressive figure.
From day one, it was clear that Francis’ papacy would be different. Choosing to be named after Francis of Assisi, the new pope clearly wanted to show a new face of the Church – a face of the poor. Francis of Assisi, who gave up his wealth for poverty, is a striking example of simple living and the acceptance of all.
Pope Francis takes this simplicity to heart, ditching the papal Mercedes in favour of a 1984 Renault 4. He also dresses more simply than his predecessors and lives in a guesthouse instead of the more luxurious papal apartments.
The pope also made news by, for the first time, including women in a Holy Thursday ceremony. The ceremony’s location – a prison – was also a first. There, he washed the feet of 12 men and women, two of whom were Muslim. In a different visit to Muslim migrants who had illegally landed in Italy, Pope Francis showed his compassion, saying, “We are a society that has forgotten how to cry.”
His inclusiveness, his humility, and his unrelenting championing of the poor have given him universal appeal, from Catholic to non-Catholic and from believer to non-believer. But it is perhaps Francis’ input into economics where he will have his biggest impact.
He is an outspoken critic of unchecked capitalism, calling it a tyranny that results in the cult of money. It is not that money is wrong; money is, after all, inherently neutral. But it is the idolatry of money that is wrong – something brought about in capitalist economies. Furthermore, Francis recognizes how unchecked capitalism results in huge disparities of wealth. Critics, such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, have pounced, calling Francis’ concern over income inequality “Marxist.” If you’re upsetting the likes of Rush Limbaugh, you’re probably doing something right.
Pope Francis has made the rich uncomfortable, calling into question the morality of living so lavishly while others cannot afford to eat. And yet he, unlike anyone else, might be best able to enact political change. In Washington, conservative leaders have taken Francis’ words seriously. Newt Gingrich said that the pope “may, in fact, be starting a conversation at the exact moment the Republican Party itself needs to have that conversation.” While the Church has been a traditional ally of conservatives, Francis’ downplaying of divisive social issues and prioritizing of social justice may play an important role in making the GOP more tolerant.
While Vatican talk of humility and service to the poor has often been met with accusations of hypocrisy, one cannot help but feel a sense of sincerity emanating from Pope Francis. Despite the power and wealth of the Holy See, here is a pope who reportedly sneaks out at night to minister to Rome’s homeless community. He does not want to change the Church into something it is not; Francis is simply re-orienting it more closely to Christ-centred teaching. Gay marriage should not be the world’s top priority, but the economic needs of all people should be.
When you really stop to think about it, Francis’ appeal is simple: he is acting in the likeness of Jesus. It is infectious, and should be a model for every Christian. At the end of the day, Francis is only human. But better than any pope before him, Pope Francis is giving the world an insight into the heart of Jesus. Which leaves me with a very basic conclusion: if you like Pope Francis, you’ll really love Jesus.