Friday, December 13, 2013

A pope for us yet

Pope Francis is Person of the Year.

Not because Time magazine said he is. He just is.

For the record, I’m a fan. Since assuming the papal throne, Francis has dialed down the typical indulgence in Vatican opulence, has driven his own old car, has allegedly gone out in disguise to serve the downtrodden at night and has taken an aggressively progressive stance on a variety of world issues. Overall, he comes across as someone who adheres to the most basic, merciful teachings of Jesus, even when doing so seems at odds with what we’ve come to expect for world leaders.

I am almost never impressed with religious leaders. By and large, they are overly dogmatic, controlling and right-wing. There are always exceptions, of course, but they’re rare and their voices are often drowned out (when not snuffed out). As far as Christianity goes, we hear far more often about the need to worship Jesus than to live by the lessons that he taught. There’s a huge difference between the two, and the wrong one too often wins.

But Francis’ papacy marks a return to being humble, helping the least upon us and shunning greed — something that’s been absent for too long. That’s huge.

It’s a start. I can’t emphasize that enough — it’s a start.

That’s important to understand, because just like any other figure of his stature, Pope Francis has his detractors. Naturally, right-leaning Catholics aren’t too thrilled with him. But he also endures criticism from among the ranks of his most pleasantly surprised supporters on the left.

Yesterday, I came across this post on Facebook, from an atheist who decries the pope as “a propaganda machine for the Catholic Church” and whose record in Argentina during the Dirty War will convince you that he’s not “such a great guy.”

I’ll admit I don’t know much about the Dirty War. The worst Wikipedia notes is that the then-Jorge Bergoglio might not have done enough to keep two priests from getting kidnapped and tortured (though for the most part, it plays up his role in defending them and keeping them alive, and notes his official exoneration for any wrongdoing).

As for Francis being a propaganda machine, I doubt that, simply because the Catholic Church is too averse to sea change. Even if it did want a progressive pontiff for PR purposes, I doubt the church sought such drastic changes. (It’s entirely possible that Francis was elected for this purpose, without awareness of how fast he’d shake things up, a la Pope John Paul I.) Besides, why would the church alienate its traditional base? Even its outreach efforts center on having people change, not the institution (“Catholics Come Home” indeed).

Francis is indeed the best kind of PR for the Catholic Church. But that’s a byproduct of being the kind of person I think the pontiff really is, not vice versa. That’s to his credit.

No, Pope Francis is not perfect. Some of his stances are as retrograde as those of his predecessors. No one will agree with him 100 percent of the time. But that isn’t the point. The point is that Francis has opened the doors for someone to come along later who will make him seem like a relic by comparison. That’s his greatest accomplishment of all.

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