‘The Pope of Mercy’ and ‘an Absolute Rock Star’

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First of three parts

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Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven.
–Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel)

He has more than 12 million Twitter followers, the most among religious leaders.

His approval ratings of 92 percent among US Catholics and 88 percent among all Americans are the envy of politicians. His public events attract hordes of devotees and fans, including nuns rushing at him screaming like teenyboppers at their pop idol. At the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro last July, a crowd of 3 million packed his Mass at Copacabana Beach, matching the record Rolling Stones concert attendance there.

No question about it: as renowned Vatican watcher John Allen Jr. pronounced in his talk last Wednesday at the Divine Word Seminary in Tagaytay, Pope Francis, “the 265th successor to Saint Peter is an absolute rock star.”

World media agrees. He is the third pope to become Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, but what took John XXIII and John Paul II years, Francis did in eight months.

Even before the Time cover, the Italian edition of celebrity rag Vanity Fair already made him its Person of the Year, the first Supreme Pontiff to get that accolade. And entertainment magazine Rolling Stone’s cover story on him is its best-selling issue this year. Superstar Elton John, who evidently appreciates Francis’s remarks on gays like him, said the Pope was “a man of humility in an age of vanity.” As for Allen himself, his new job as Boston Globe newspaper’s associate editor and Vatican correspondent with a regular “All Things Catholic” column, further underscores how Francis has undoubtedly gotten media’s attention.

‘Tsunami in Catholic life’
The past year, sums up Allen, is nothing less than “a tsunami in Catholic life.” Of course, the Vatican’s centuries-old corridors are feeling the change, too. No more gleaming black Mercedes limo shuttling the man in white around. Francis rides a 1984 Renault or a bus with cardinals, if not walking to assemblies, mixing with black-clad prelates and priests, and even lining up for coffee (one burly priest unknowingly pushed him aside).

Summed up a veteran cardinal known for sartorial elegance, but now sporting simple black: “What you must understand with this Pope, simple is the new chic.”

Things Catholic are really changing big under Francis. And Allen, who has written nine books on the Church, including three on Benedict XVI and one of the future of Catholicism, highlighted three major thrusts of the present Papacy: God’s mercy, servant leadership, and the social gospel. And the greatest of these is mercy.

If the longtime Vatican man of America’s National Catholic Reporter journal had to sum up in a phrase what he believes would be the core of Francis’s reign, it would be: “Pope of Mercy.” (For John Paul II, it’s “Be Not Afraid” of the mission of evangelization, and for Benedict XVI, “Reason and Faith,” the German theologian-pontiff’s lifelong vocation to reconcile the modern world’s rationalism with the millennia-old religion.)

More than his humility and simple living, his love and advocacy for the poor and the disadvantaged, and his bold efforts to reform the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy, it is probably Francis’s unrelenting message extolling the boundless mercy of God that not only endears him most to tens of millions of souls across the planet, but may well become the defining principle of his reign as Vicar of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, many of his most touching words and gestures are born of his message that all of us, starting with himself, are sinners pleading for God’s mercy. In his first appearance as pope over a year ago, Francis asked the multitude in Saint Peter’s Square to pray for him. In his first Angelus address, he stressed: “Mercy is the Lord’s most powerful message. … It is not easy to trust oneself to the mercy of God, because His mercy is an unfathomable abyss — but we must do it!”

Francis’s oft-quoted comment on homosexuals recalled Jesus’s admonition not to judge others: “Who am I to judge?” More than once, the Holy Father has called himself a sinner. And recently, admitting he sometimes fell asleep while praying, he found great joy in the thought of God looking down at him with great love. As he said in his first Angelus speech a year ago this past Monday, “Dear brothers and sisters, the face of God is that of a merciful father who is always patient with us.”

‘Shepherds with the smell of sheep’
After the core tenet of God’s mercy as the central Christian message, the second thrust of Francis’s Papacy is servant leadership. In particular, he wants the Church hierarchy to set aside “the psychology of princes”, enamored of the power and privilege of position. Instead, cardinals, bishops and priests should be servants of the flock, first and foremost, who bear “the smell of their sheep.”

As widely reported and applauded, Francis walks his talk about servant leadership. He declined the palatial Papal Apartments, living instead in a hostel for visiting clergy. With no central heating, Allen recounts, the Holy Father had to keep the stove on in winter to stay warm. He expects Church leaders to also avoid ostentation.

In one of Francis’s early disciplinary acts, the Vatican suspended prelate and theologian Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, whose extravagant tenure at Limburg Diocese under the Cologne ecclesiastical province in Germany, earned him the unofficial nickname, “the Bishop of Bling. He went on terminal leave over a $42-million residential complex, which included a $25,000 bathtub. (The structure may now become temporary housing for migrants and a soup kitchen for the poor.)

“Without the spirit of service,” Francis once admonished, “the Church is just a clearing house.” So expect more and more bishops, priests, and other Catholic worthies to get down and dirty, just like the man in white.

(Part 2 on Francis’s social gospel and the growing importance of Filipino Catholics will be published on Monday.)

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