WHEN Pope Francis arrives today for his visit to the Philippines—the first of what I hope will be a long papacy —it’s prudent for us to shape our expectations in light of the key directions and positions that he has already taken since the beginning of his Pontificate. Let us not place on his 78-year-old shoulders burdens that are Ceasar’s, like the elimination of corruption in our public life, the closing of the huge gap between rich and poor in our society, and the resolution of the long-running insurgencies in our country.
“Vatican’t” was the term used by New Yorker journalist and editor Hendrik Hertzberg to describe the Roman Catholic Church after its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith handed down the historic “Instruction on respect for human life in its origin and on the dignity of procreation,” which recited prohibitions on surrogate motherhood, in vitro fertilization and artificial contraception back in the 1990s.
Yet, the Church under Pope Francis, is showing, and has shown, every sign that it can embrace and make reform. In barely two years at the Vatican (he was elected on March 13, 2013), he has pointedly refused to be moored to tradition. He has moved to address the unique problems of the world in our time. And he has signaled sweeping reforms within the Church itself.
So, yes, the Vatican can. It’s not Vatican’t.
A different kind of leadership
Upon his election, Francis immediately surprised the world and the 1.2-billion Catholic faithful. His manner and appearance, at first presentation, was different from what everyone expected
He came out plainly dressed, a simple white cassock, no regalia, no finery. He stood on the balcony like a pillar and looked out at the crowd on the square. There were no grand gestures, not even a smile. He looked tentative and shy.
Then came a telling moment, which seemed to say what kind of leader he would be. Before he gave a blessing he asked for a blessing: He asked the crowd to pray for him. He bent his head down and the raucous, cheering square suddenly became silent, as everyone prayed. It was an act of humility that moved many to tears.
Writing about that first day, the writer Peggy Noonan, a Catholic, said: “I wasn’t sure what to make of it and said so to a friend, a member of another faith who wants the best for the Church because to him that’s like wanting the best for the world. He was already loving what he was seeing. He asked what was giving me pause. I said I don’t know, the curia is full of tough fellows, the pope has to be strong.
“That is more than strength,” he said of the man on the screen. “This is not cynical humanity. This is showing there is another way to be.”
“Yes. This is a kind of public leadership we are no longer used to—unassuming, self-effacing. Leaders of the world now are garish and brazen. You can think of half a dozen of their names in less than a minute. They’re good at showbiz, they find the light and flash the smile.
“But this man wasn’t trying to act like anything else.”
Francis is no iconoclast. He is orthodox, traditional, and his understanding of the faith is fully in line with the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the two pontiffs who have preceded him. He believes in, stands for, speaks for the culture of life.
Throughout his life, he has shown a strong affinity and love for the poor, and not in an abstract way. He gave the cardinal’s palace in Buenos Aires to a missionary order with no money. He lives in an apartment, cooks his own food, rides the bus. He rejects pomposity. He does not feel superior. He booked a flight back to Argentina when the papal conclave ended, after his election.
These striking traits —his embrace of the Church’s doctrines, his humility and his embrace of the poor— are very powerful when put together. They underpin the rock-like status and appeal of Pope Francis to the world and all humanity.
The meaning of the name he chose speaks volumes. He echoes St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus and wanted to be like St. Francis of Assisi.
In St. Bonaventure’s “Life of Francis of Assisi,” it is told that Francis while praying heard a voice coming from the Lord’s cross, telling him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”
Reform of the Church
At a time when the Church has been wracked by many scandals, which have damaged its credibility and influence, it is not surprising that Pope Francis has launched major reforms, of which the following are notable and most recent:
1.Early in the new year, on Sunday, January 4, Francis named 20 new cardinals from around the world to the elite group at the top of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including 15 who can enter a conclave to choose his successor after his death or resignation.
This is the second time Francis has put his stamp on the direction he wants the Church to move, having named 19 cardinals only a year ago.
The 15 new “cardinal electors” —those aged under 80—come from Italy, France, Portugal, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Mexico, Myanmar, Thailand, Uruguay, Spain, Panama, Cape Verde and Tonga. Nine of them come from countries in the developing world.
Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Pope “does not feel chained to the tradition” that major cities around the world should automatically have cardinals to lead them.
2. On December 22, 2014, during a meeting with cardinals and bishops of the Vatican Curia on the occasion of the exchange of Christmas greetings at the Vatican, Pope Francis issued a blistering critique of the Vatican bureaucracy that serves him.
Francis’ greeting was a sobering catalogue of 15 sins of the Curia that Francis said he hoped would be atoned for and cured in 2015.
He had some zingers: How the “terrorism of gossip” can “kill the reputation of our colleagues and brothers in cold blood.” How cliques can “enslave their members and become a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body” and eventually kill it by “friendly fire.” About how some suffer from a “pathology of power” that makes them seek power at all costs, even if it means defaming or discrediting others publicly.
The cardinals were not amused. The speech was met with tepid applause, and few were smiling as Francis listed one by one the 15 “Ailments of the Curia” that he had drawn up, complete with footnotes and Biblical references.
3. In a signal that he means to have a role in foreign affairs, Francis played a crucial role in bringing Cuba and the US together to end decades of mutual suspicion and hostility. This pope has no qualms about putting the Holy See on the front lines of diplomacy. Francis brought the rapprochement about by writing to President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Live and see and pray
What surprises will Pope Francis unveil during his visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines?
From Colombo, there’s only the news that the Pope got fatigued by the heat and the long ride from the airport to the capital. He canceled a meeting with bishops.
In the Philippines, we will see today how things will unfold. And how Francis will rock our world.
Live and see. And pray.