Just months into his papacy, Francis has shown a flair for dramatic changes.
Subscribe to the Real Truth for FREE news and analysis.Subscribe Now
A promotional video for World Youth Day (WYD) 2013, held July 23-28 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, touts the event as the largest youth gathering in the world. Conceived by Pope John Paul II in 1985, WYD is an international assemblage of young Catholics from around the globe, held at a major city every few years.
Recent venues include Madrid, Sydney, Toronto, Cologne and Paris. When held in Manila, Philippines, in 1995, four to five million young people gathered to hear John Paul II speak in Luneta Park—one of the largest crowds in history.
Melodramatic music reminiscent of a movie score fills the video as it flashes images of previous WYDs: masses of young people gathered in a field for a papal address, groups of teens hoisting huge wooden crosses, intimate gatherings of devout youth, teary-eyed girls listening to a homily. It is a striking presentation.
But something is wrong. Interspersed through the scenes of crowds large and small, footage of a white-haired, elaborately adorned pontiff alerts viewers that the film was produced prior to March 13 of this year. That was the day Benedict XVI (the pope featured in the WYD video), just weeks after announcing that he would step down from the papacy, became Pope Emeritus, and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen by the papal conclave as his replacement.
The producers of the film could scarcely be faulted, as it had been 600 years since a pope had resigned his position. Who could have seen that coming? But they probably would have liked the chance to start again with footage of the new Bishop of Rome—a very different pope.
For the final Sunday mass during the youth gathering in Brazil, Francis drew an estimated three million people to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro—not a new record, but still a huge throng, more than the whole population in dozens of nations. As one of the first major events attended by this pontiff in the era of an embattled Roman Church, the Vatican considers it a great success.
In the months since his election, it has become clear: Francis’s is a unique papacy that has come during a unique and historic time for his church.
An impartial observer watching Francis’s first months in the Vatican might conclude that the papal conclave chose him in a fervent reaction to the outcome of Benedict’s short tenure. The two men’s approach to the office could scarcely be more different. Such an observer might first wonder if Francis, upon being elected, reinvented himself in a new image to distance himself from his predecessor. But those familiar with the former cardinal have known him to be this way for decades.
A common denominator is their European descent, one German and one Italian. But any obvious outward similarity stops there. Francis was born to Italian immigrants and raised in Argentina, far from the opulent culture for which the Continent is known.
The Washington Post summarized the new pope’s presentation: “By now you’ve heard the story: Simple living, highly educated Jesuit priest-turned-archbishop-turned-pope rocks the Vatican with a modest lifestyle and frank tone seen as a radical departure from the practices of previous pontiffs.
“He’s the pope who church watchers say hasn’t mentioned abortion or gay marriage in his first 120 days.
“The pope who named himself after the radical mystic St. Francis of Assisi in order to remember the poor.
“The pope who said nice things about atheists.
“The pope whom many already see as the best hope to re-energize a fading Catholic Church in the West.
“The new pope’s influence has been dubbed the ‘Francis effect’; he’s been compared to Princess Diana and called ‘the people’s pope.’ Early polls indicate that Francis is unusually popular, and in the months since his election, Catholics and non-Catholics alike can be found buzzing about his latest sermon or act of humility. Did you hear, the pope isn’t living in the papal apartment? Did you see, Pope Francis paid his own hotel bill after becoming the leader of the Catholic Church? Did you notice, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics carried his own bag onto the plane for his trip to World Youth Day?”
Francis has embodied qualities and habits not often associated with the papacy: a modest lifestyle, a penchant for wading into the middle of crowds (much to the chagrin of his security detail, which he sometimes orders to stand down altogether), a focus on inclusiveness and tolerance for other religions, and a notably constant theme of focusing on the world’s poor. The final result is a “man of the people” charisma.
The so-called Francis effect does not stop with his personal example. It has been reported that the papal conclave brought him into office with a mandate to reform the church, which has been repeatedly battered by scandals for more than a decade.
How much progress is evident in his first five months on the job?
In April, the Vatican announced his formation of a group of eight cardinals, hailing from six continents, “to ‘advise him on the government of the universal church’ and ‘to study a project of revision’ of a document from John Paul II on the Roman Curia” (National Catholic Reporter).
In July, he formed another group—a commission to help him reform the Vatican’s finances and administrative structure, both also plagued by scandal. “Made up of seven international lay experts and one cleric, the commission will report directly to the pope and advise him on economic affairs, improving transparency and enforcing accounting principles” (Reuters).
Prior to this, in dealing with the Vatican bank (officially called the Institute for Religious Works or IOR), Francis “fired Nunzio Scarano, the top accountant in the Vatican office that oversees Vatican property and investments, after he was accused of money laundering and corruption and subsequently arrested. Then, practically overnight, he forced out IOR Director Paulo Cipriani and his deputy. Now the bank will be led by Ernst von Freyberg, a German baron and former consultant, member of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the president of the IOR supervisory board since mid-February” (Der Spiegel).
Tackling broader problems at the church’s city-state center, he “overhauled the laws that govern the Vatican City state…criminalizing leaks of Vatican information and specifically listing sexual violence, prostitution and possession of child pornography as crimes against children that can be punished by up to 12 years in prison. The legislation covers clergy and lay people…” (USA Today).
Beyond sweeping gestures, he has directly admonished the clergy at a very specific and personal level, stating, “It hurts my heart when I see a priest with the latest model car,” and that “something’s not right” with priests, nuns and seminarians who “are too serious, too sad” (The Associated Press).
Near the close of WYD 2013, in unprecedented comments that will likely thrill many young Catholics and upset some traditionalists, he told a gathering of Argentinian youth, “What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!…I want to see the church in the street. I want to get rid of the mundane, the comforts, clericalism, this closing ourselves off in the parishes, the schools or institutions” (The Washington Post).
Add various statements from Francis that have offered olive branches to atheists, Muslims, homosexuals and other groups, and you have a picture that some have called revolutionary.
So far, the general response to the “Francis effect” has been one of renewed enthusiasm among Catholics worldwide. Any distaste among conservatives is largely lost in a chorus of praise.
Approbation for Francis has come from many directions—some predictable, others surprising.
Early in his papacy, American columnist Peggy Noonan mused, “…this pope seems to me the pope of sweetness, not of a shallow or sentimental kind but some deep sweetness that has to do with words like tenderness, and mercy, and protection.”
“John Paul and Benedict were bringers, givers, teachers. But Francis seems like a summoner, an inviter. And this seems just right for the world right now.
“…I am finding it impossible not to be interested in what he is doing, and what he will become” (The Wall Street Journal).
His first official trip outside Rome was to the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, known as a way station for those migrating from Northern Africa to Europe, with many not surviving the journey often undertaken in dangerously overloaded and under-equipped vessels. This brought positive comments from many media outlets, humanitarian relief organization UNICEF, and from Fouad Aodi, president of the Arab Community in Italy (Comai), who called the visit “unforgettable” and “historic” (AnsaMed).
The Italian edition of Vanity Fair has already named Francis “Man of the Year.” It featured him on the cover of an issue that contains statements of admiration from various celebrities. Most notable was musician Elton John. The singer/songwriter, who once called for a ban of all organized religion, hailed the pope “a miracle of humility in an era of vanity.”
And the head of the world’s most influential international organization—United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon—offered a glowing assessment of his first meeting with Francis. Speaking at a New York City reception in April, he stated: “I can tell you that after meeting [the pope], I came away with a deep, abiding respect for his moral voice and his passionate commitment and his deep humility. I told [him] that his choice of name after St. Francis of Assisi was a powerful message. It speaks loudly of his commitment to the poor and his resolve to improve the human condition…We also talked about the need for all of us and the world to advance the dignity and human rights, especially for women and girls. Pope Francis is a bridge builder. I know that he strongly shares my conviction that inter-faith dialogue can point the way for a deeper appreciation for shared values, which in turn can lead to tolerance, inclusion and peace.
“As I said at the Vatican, Pope Francis is a man of peace, a man of purpose, a voice for the voiceless. He is a defender of the defenseless people. I look forward to continuing our dialogue with His Holiness and the Vatican. In this spirit, I was honored to invite Pope Francis to visit the United Nations at his earliest convenience” (National Catholic Reporter).
More than any recent pope, Francis’s focus has been on the developing world, places in which large numbers live in poverty. His credibility has been bolstered by his status as the first pontiff from the Southern Hemisphere, where much of the planet’s extreme poverty can be found. He has made clear his support for large-scale wealth redistribution to address income inequities, in keeping with his ties to the social justice movement popular in his native Latin America.
But he has another large challenge before him in another part of the planet.
A Catholic initiative called “the New Evangelism” has as one of its primary targets the home of Catholicism—Europe.
Benedict had made an attempt at this before Francis, in the summer of 2010 creating “a new office to ‘re-evangelise’ the Western world…a stark reminder of just how far secularization has progressed in an area that was once called Christendom and…a tacit admission that the Church’s recent attempts to reinvigorate Christianity in Europe have not succeeded.
“[Benedict] admitted that while there were many areas of the world that were still ripe for missionaries, Europe and North America have suffered from an ‘eclipse of a sense of God’…” (The Independent).
While his tenure ended before much progress was seen, Benedict may have planted some seeds of future success. An article in The New Republic noted, “By any reasonable standard, Europeans are already massively over-represented in the College of Cardinals, and any sense of justice would call for more African and Asian appointments. Benedict, however, not only continued to appoint European cardinals, but chose a striking number of Italians. Europe now notionally accounts for just 24 percent of the world’s Catholics, but 53 percent of the Cardinal electors. In tilting the balance towards a European successor, Benedict was not slighting the rest of the world: Rather, he was declaring his intention to keep up the fight for Europe.”
Francis’s vision and ambition may start in developing nations, but it does not end there, and his energy—reported to already be wearing out his aides, despite missing part of a lung and being in his mid-70s—will inevitably be directed to the lands surrounding the Vatican in due time.
Simply put, the long-range goal of the Roman Catholic Church is to truly reflect the meaning of its name: The word “catholic” comes from the Greek katholicos, which means “universal.” Popes have long envisioned the entire world of Christianity being under the Roman Catholic umbrella, and various interfaith and ecumenical schemes are unfolding toward that end.
Catholics believe that their religion is the modern ancestor of what started with Jesus Christ and the 12 disciples in Judea nearly 2,000 years ago, and that by spreading Catholicism, they are spreading “the kingdom of God,” to quote the phrase used by Christ in the Bible.
But is the Roman Church the same one described in the New Testament?
Consider some fundamental facts:
Are these statements thought-provoking? They should be. There are many, many more, each having clear biblical support. These briefest of plain facts underscore the need for Christians, more than ever before, to prove what they believe. Other scriptures make clear that they will soon face crises of conscience as more denominations begin to partner, cooperate, undertake joint efforts, and ultimately merge with Rome.
To learn about the true origins of modern Christian denominations, read Editor-in-Chief David C. Pack’s free booklet Where Is God’s Church?
Packed with carefully documented research and biblical proofs, it will open your eyes as never before to the many unmistakable identifiers of God’s Church!