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It’s around 9 months since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio surprised Vaticanistas by being elected Pope.
The first Jesuit to hold this high office and adopting the name of Francis from St Francis of Assisi, it was clear from the moment he walked out onto the balcony of St Peters that we had ourselves a fresh face and fresh approach to the Papacy. Stepping out onto the balcony, not raising his arms towards the heavens like his predecessors, but outwards to the thousands gathered in Vatican Square, a spiritual embrace furthered with a message of love, trust, and of a shared journey with the world. In this short time Pope Francis has gained much acclaim. Being Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, The Advocate‘s Person of the Year and Esquire Magazine’s best dressed man of 2013. For me the most poignant moment of his papacy to date has to be his “Who am I to Judge” speech made on his plane.
Remember, The Vatican is a nation in its own right, with a central bank, government administration, an observer status at the U.N, and with a membership of 1.2bn people that would come second to China population wise could they all live inside Vatican City. So I ask, is Pope Francis acting like a head of state rather than a head of a religion? Is their change, real change that we can see heading our way?
Within this short space of time we see a different style of leadership. Pope Francis appears to be big on symbolism, from ringing up to cancel his daily paper back in Buenos Aires to walking to the hostel he was staying in in Rome to pay his bill after becoming Pope. He is a pope that wants to remain grounded. He presents himself as a servant to his followers, forgoing the pomp and regalia associated with his predecessors, choosing to sleep in a dormitory and not in the Papal flat. He washes the feet of criminals (two of whom were women worrying some traditionalists which he appears to do quite a bit). Pope Francis has denounced the ‘cult of money’ within the church leading to a review of Vatican bureaucracy, with particular focus on the money laundering and scandal at the Vatican bank. He also refused to pay out bonuses given to Vatican workers on appointment of the new Pope, (Nearly $200 per person in 2005), a bonus I was not aware of until researching for this article.
So why my interest? As an atheist I have great respect for Pope Francis. As a ‘politico’ I observe and analyse in the same way I would with David Cameron or President Obama, and faith plays little to no part in my analysis. I watch the change with enthusiasm. A man who came into office having been an outsider, not mentioned by any of the Vatican pundits who were looking towards the more conservative end of the spectrum, even though he came second to Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. He is instilling a cultural change within Catholicism which excites me. The Catholic Church doesn’t appear to be the big bad nej Sayers, but appears to be embracing diversity and becoming accountable for what it teaches.
Whilst condemning the Mafia of its crimes, Pope Francis didn’t hide behind double standards but pointed blame back on the church over its actions, or rather lack of, regarding sexual abuse by clergy, saying; “inconsistency on the part of pastors and the faithful, between what they say and what they do, between word and manner of life, is undermining the Church’s credibility.” Francis’s Papacy is becoming more about what the church can do and what it can open up to rather than what it can’t do and what it can’t accept. I admire that in a leadership that is selected from the few within rather than the grass root members Pope Francis has commissioned a poll for all members of the church to gauge their opinion on key issues affecting the modern family opening up debate which may divide the cardinals, which at one point may have seemed hopeless. Issues ranging from divorce & remarriage, birth control and same sex marriages and adoptions amongst others will make up this survey.
After growing up with a church saying homosexuality is wrong because the bible says so and that’s the way it has to be, this move is welcomed by me and I’m sure many others. Even if in October 2014 when the results of these polls are made known, the majority opinion sides with the teachings and is opposed to change, I praise the Pope for making this unprecedented move to consult with the grass roots rather than keeping ‘policy’ (for want of a better word) decisions within the Vatican corridors of faith and power. It demonstrates a more accepting church, a more modern church that Francis is aiming to create, after his now perceived position changing “Who am I to judge” comment, with regards to gay Catholics.
We should not forget that being gay doesn’t mean you can’t be religious. I would argue strongly against that thought. If you believe in God and want to follow the Catholic faith or any other religion, what right does the religious organisation have to judge you, and to exclude or punish you because of who you are, let alone who you love. I would argue like Pope Francis did that if you wish to continue with your beliefs then no one else can judge you. Francis appears to be bringing the Church back to the roots that I was taught in school, that of understanding, personal freedom, kindness and community spirit, these principles that exist outside of religious organisations.
Pope Francis has described atheists, like myself as “precious allies in efforts to defend the dignity of man.” I would sign up to an alliance as odd as it may sound, but from my point of view. If you believe in a god and that choice guides you and shapes you as a person, to quote Pope Francis “who am I to judge?” I may not understand why, but in respecting your decisions and your faith I would hope that we would all follow the example set by Pope Francis of respect, understanding and tolerance of differences the human race has to offer. Coming together to defend the dignity of man.