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Pope Francis’ First Three Years – Perception vs. Reality

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Pope Francis’ First Three Years

Perception vs. Reality

After years of high expectations for Francis, his accomplishments can begin to be placed in the context of Vatican history.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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“I was completely overwhelmed.” It was “beyond my imagination.” “I could not stop sobbing.” “I thought I died and went to heaven! His compassionate eyes and tender touch will always be in my heart.”

These are all answers to this question: How does it feel to be in the presence of Pope Francis? The comments appeared in The Philippine Star before the pontiff’s visit to the island nation.

Another man described his feelings while meeting the pope during a painful time in his life: “There he was, right in front of me, and I could tell him anything at all that was on my mind. And would you believe it? For the first time ever in my life, I was at a loss for words. All I could muster was ‘Mille mille grazie, Santo Papa!’ That was it! No more words would come out of my mouth! I kissed his hand, he blessed me and looked straight into my eyes and I could literally feel my heart jump out of my chest. He had such a loving presence that, I believe, it eased [the] pain [of losing my father].”

So many people have reported similar experiences that it has been dubbed the “Francis effect.”

It has been this way since the day Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected three years ago. The moment he, now Pope Francis, stepped onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the world immediately saw a difference. He wore a simple white cassock without the usual colorful, expensive vestments.

Around his neck was a modest silver cross instead of the usual gold, jewel-studded version worn by popes of the past. He forewent the red leather papal loafers in favor of black orthopedic shoes. (He is even known to wear a plastic Casio wrist watch.) He seemed simpler and plainer than his predecessors.

All of this resonated with the people. “The feeling in the square was very joyful,” an American mother, who had been there with her family that night, commented to CBS. “It was just electric.”

A 60 Minutes reporter attended “one of his weekly masses, and afterwards, [Francis] spent two hours…in the crowd. By this point, basically, everyone had left. But he walked around, he spoke to about one hundred people in wheelchairs, and he stopped and really spoke to each and every one of them.”

The number of people that attended the weekly papal address in St. Peter’s Square soon tripled over the number that came during the tenure of Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI.

The reporter noted, “We haven’t seen a buzz like this around a person in a long time,” and explained that “this outpouring of euphoria is fueled by the hope that this new pope would finally tackle the problems bedeviling the church.”

Patrick Seeger/AFP/Getty Images
Continued traditions: Pope Francis celebrates mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City (March 24, 2016).

Some leaders in the church shared the notion that Pope Francis is a revolutionary. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told ABC News: “…what we were after was a good pastor with a track record of solid administration but fatherly, warm, tender care for the sheep, for his people. And, boy, we got that on steroids with Pope Francis. He’s the world’s parish priest.”

Even the U.S. is not immune. During his tour of the nation in September 2015, as the pontiff motored his way toward the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., in the back of a small, black Fiat, the raw excitement was audible. A CBS reporter commented as the car passed by: “Can you hear the crowd, cheering? Oh! There he is! There’s the pope! He waved!” With a simple wave of his hand, Pope Francis, sitting in the back seat of the compact vehicle with a steady, genuine smile on his face, electrified bystanders.

Due to his pop-culture image, Francis has been dubbed the “super pope” or “rock star pope.” Yet he has also been labeled a “progressive,” “reformer” and “true Catholic.”

The New York Times listed several ways the pope has changed the direction of the church and the world: he emphasizes the plight of the poor and the need for ethics in finance, criticized the church on its “obsession” with the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, endorsed Palestine as a state, approved the creation of a Vatican tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up sexual abuse cases within the church, and called on political figures to act to stop climate change.

Given his global diplomatic and cultural influence, 1.2 billion followers, and arguably the wealthiest organization in the world backing him up, Forbes named him the fourth most powerful person on Earth in 2015. The man at the helm of the largest religious force should be in the best position available to unite all people in an effort to secure lasting solutions to the world’s problems.

Yet, three years into the Vatican’s new wave of energy, has Pope Francis lived up to the pie-eyed expectations?

Instilling Hope

Throughout his papacy, Francis has declared that all religions could receive salvation and all religions could work together. His words on Vatican Radio: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!…‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another [in heaven].”

Expectations that the pope would actually work with other religions further materialized in February 2016 when he met and signed a declaration with Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church—the first meeting between the two church heads in over 1,000 years. The document, which called on the world community to unite against violence and defend persecuted Christians, particularly in the Middle East, was the first of its kind.

In the declaration, which was translated and released on the Vatican’s website, the church leaders stated: “We are not competitors, but brothers, and this concept must guide all our mutual actions as well as those directed to the outside world. We urge Catholics and Orthodox in all countries to learn to live together in peace and love, and to be ‘in harmony with one another’ (Rm 15:5).”

Reporters immediately touted the groundbreaking possibilities of this meeting.

A reporter for the National Review stated, “The Francis-Kirill encounter could open the way to a better ecumenical future, if what follows in its wake is a genuine dialogue between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy about Christian witness in the 21st-century world…”

The pope also has raised hopes of increased solidarity between nations and cultures to tackle common problems—poverty, government corruption, breakdown of the family, violence and division.

During an address to the European Parliament in 2014, Francis outlined his overall vision. The translator, barely able to refrain from breaking down emotionally, carried his message: “As I speak to you today, I would like, as a pastor, to offer a message of hope and encouragement…It’s a message of hope based on the confidence that our problems can become powerful forces for unity in working to overcome all those fears which Europe, together with the entire world, is experiencing at the moment. It’s a message of hope in the Lord, who turns evil into good and death into life. It’s a message of encouragement to return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who wanted a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent” (emphasis added).

The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States reflected the pontiff’s ability to influence foreign policy.

In a similar fashion, Pope Francis called on the world to come together to fix environmental issues. His encyclical “Laudato Si’” urges global solidarity on actions such as reducing greenhouse emissions and recycling. It was intended to lead “both ordinary people in their daily lives and decision-makers at the Paris U.N. climate meetings to a wholesale change of mind and heart,” according to Deseret News.

Prominent Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley called it a “seminal moment in world history because the pope now is the leading global voice on climate change. The pope brings extraordinary clout connecting Christianity and humanism to the protection of natural resources.”

Many Catholics hoped Francis would even reform church doctrine—such as allowing women to preach, homosexuals to become full members, standards of divorce and remarriage to be loosened, and abortion to be accepted.

When asked in July 2013 about his thoughts on homosexuals, he famously responded that if a person “seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?”

To this day, current and former Catholic members have clung to the hope that revision of church doctrine on this and other subjects lies ahead. While this dialogue never manifested itself in practice, it “raised expectations that other changes must surely be in the papal pipeline,” CBS reported.

Nothing New

“What’s changed, really?” a CBS reporter asked Robert Dodaro, an early Catholic philosophy professor and priest at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University. The response came quick with a definitive tone: “Nothing.”

“Unless you think style is more important than content,” the priest continued, “and a lot of people do.”

Pope Francis has made clear that he has not and cannot change church teaching. In fact, he can only bring out the flavors within it that match the world’s tastes. According to Cardinal Timothy Dolan in an interview with ABC News: “[Pope] John the twenty-third said, ‘look, the teaching of the church is a timeless gift. You can’t change it. It’s ours, we inherit it. We’re given it. But the way we gift wrap it, the way we make it more attractive and more compelling to the world, that can always change.’ And that’s what Francis is saying.”

In other words, Francis is a smiling new face on the same body. The Vatican has done this before.

During the First Vatican Council of 1869-1870, cardinals and bishops from around the world gathered in Rome to discuss how to respond to the rise of free-thinking movements and liberalism bred by the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. The consensus was to put emphasis on biblical literalism and the infallibility of the pope—giving him sole power to define church doctrine.

In the 1960s, however, with Europe still limping along after the most destructive war in history, the Catholic Church, with its lavish customs and monarchical pope, seemed passe—irrelevant.

The Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965, shifted the church’s focus to an emphasis on lay members and local bishops, interfaith dialogue, less central authority, and supporting the poor. Bishops around the world expressed their goal to make the church more accessible, sensible and universal in a world filled with increasing conflict, political partisanship, poverty and counterculture.

They also made clear that the church had a responsibility to reach out to other religions: “The Church, therefore, urges her sons to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture.”

“Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.”

“Therefore, the Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or any harassment of them on the basis of their race, color, condition in life or religion” (Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate 3, October 28, 1965).

The tone of papal leaders of Vatican II (following the Second Vatican Council) reflected this new direction. Pope John Paul II fought against anti-Semitism. Benedict held friendly discussions with the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been at odds with Catholicism for centuries.

But, “Pope Francis is saying, more clearly than ever before, that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for everyone,” James Martin, a Catholic priest, told The Huffington Post. “That’s always been a Christian belief…But rarely do you hear it said by Catholics so forcefully, and with such evident joy.”

Whatever the previous popes revolutionized, Francis epitomized. Paulo Anto Pulikkan, a Catholic priest, summed it up to the Catholic News Agency: “A true legacy of the Second Vatican Council is being fulfilled in the person and pontificate of Pope Francis.”

On the inside, however, the church looks the same. While the pope is immensely popular—a Pew Research Center poll indicated that 80 percent of U.S. Catholics have a favorable view of him, a higher figure than any in the past—the number of those that attend mass and identify as Catholic has not changed according to the same poll. Those that came back to church hoping to hear a new message in their congregation left after hearing more of the same.

While the pope has brought a charged message of inclusiveness and hope for three years, and the church’s rebranded policies have been around for over 50 years, is the church, and the world, really different? Hearkening back to the interviewer’s question: What has changed in the world, really?

Stark Reality

The hope placed in Pope Francis is understandable. People see atrocities and hardships occurring around the globe and want change. For the same reason, people entrust their futures to politicians and other inspiring personalities.

A quote attributed to Catholic thinker Augustine of Hippo addresses longing for change: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

The problem is this: things have remained as they are. Augustine lived over 1,500 years ago. Yes, some small, regional or temporary improvements occurred throughout the centuries, but mankind’s constant foes remain: war, prejudice, murder, poverty—the list sadly goes on.

Too often, hope is just a shallow emotional high. Also, it hides a crucial truth of humanity: mankind cannot solve his problems.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Despite impressive technological breakthroughs, experiments with nearly every conceivable form of government, and incredible scientific knowledge—we cannot solve our evils and ills.

This is a bitter pill to swallow! Yet it is actually the first step to true, lasting hope.

Psychology Today defines hope as “not just a feel-good emotion, but a dynamic cognitive motivational system.” This quality leads to “growth and improvement.” People who have it “are actively engaged in their learning, constantly planning strategies to meet their goals, and monitoring their progress to stay on track.”

Said another way, hope has to do with having a goal and a plan to get there—then working to achieve the objective. Most times, people have a goal and no plan. As a result, the hope quickly fizzles.

The scientific definition is consistent with the Bible. In the Old Testament, one of the Hebrew words for hope can mean a “rope” or “line.” As in, “I know the goal and how to get there. I know that if I follow this ‘line’—no matter how hard the journey is—I will arrive at the desired outcome.”

What should you truly hope for in a better tomorrow? And how do you get there?

The answer comes in exploring one more question. You can already see that man is incapable of improving his situation. The next question is why? Answering this will help you understand current world conditions. It also will lead you to understand your incredible purpose for being on Earth.

This information is all contained in Why Man Cannot Solve His Problems, written by Real Truth editor-in-chief David C. Pack. There is no need to cling to shallow hope—or wallow in despair.

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