A Humanist for Our Troubled Times

Pope Francis with President Barack Obama at the Vatican last year. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Pope Francis with President Barack Obama at the Vatican last year. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

There’s something refreshing about this Pope.

Perhaps it’s the endearing smile. But then, most world leaders smile effortlessly. Or maybe it’s the easy rapport with adoring audiences. Then again, most politicians are consummate connectors. So what makes Jose Mario Bergoglio, the 266th Head of the Catholic Church, different?

Perhaps it is this–in a world where elected representatives talk their talk and then walk a very different walk, a man who does what he says and doesn’t talk too much about what he does manages to get not just our attention, but our respect as well.

The sight of a Pope sitting in a humble Fiat 500 at Andrews Air Force Base – escorted and practically dwarfed by US Secret Service vehicles and ‘The Beast’ – is not one that the world is likely to forget in a hurry. He is on a six-day tour of the United States and the world is not about to forget the gentle scolding he delivered in slow, laboured English to the United States Congress. The Pope spoke of immigration, the environment and arms sales and received no less than 24 standing ovations during the course of his speech from America’s most hardboiled politicians.

He then went on to address the United Nations General Assembly and after paying fulsome tributes to the organisation on its 70th birthday, also kindly rebuked the global body for too much talk and not enough action. Quoting the preamble of the UN’s charter, he said: ‘The ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’, and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption.”

Francis is what you could call a bit of a ‘papal anomaly’. He has foregone his predecessor’s Mercedes and also the trappings of luxury in the Vatican. He still waits in line at the dentist’s office and exchanges his zucchetto (skull cap) with those that people in his audiences sometimes try to hand him, (If they fit, he wears them.) He washes the feet of the society’s rejects, puts on a clown’s nose and jokes with people during public gatherings and the photo of him hugging a man horribly disfigured by neurofibromatosis has gone viral.

In a culture where hubris is not just tolerated but extolled, the Pope’s humility certainly stands out. Even as Presidents and Prime Ministers drum up support through displays of self-promotion, the Pope does the opposite and ends up having a greater impact on his audiences. So much so that even the media sits up and takes note. President Obama sitting next to the Pontiff told reporters in the Oval Office, “I was just telling the Pope that you’re much better behaved than usual.”

Radical faith

But the Pope’s immense popularity (he has a 90% approval rating in the United States) could also have something to do with his radical faith. ‘Radical’ is not a word that one bandies about lightly in this day and age, nor is it a word that one associates positively with religion in the twenty first century. And yet if there is one religious leader who serves as a glad reminder of the radix (roots) of his faith it would be Francis.

At this point I must clarify that I am not a Catholic. Nor am I an apologist. I am also well aware of the Roman Catholic Church’s blighted history. Dark as large chunks of its past have been, the Church has also unwittingly sent forth rays of light and hope, albeit ironically, mostly in the form of the very sons and daughters that it rejected. (The church, it has been said has a habit of canonizing dead saints while cannonading living ones.)

One such man was Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226 AD) who is the current Pope’s inspiration and whose name the Pontiff adopted when he took up the papacy in 2013. The son of Pietro di Bernardone, a prosperous silk merchant, Francis of Assisi had an experience that turned him from a wealthy young socialite and soldier in the Crusades to a monk who embraced the vows of simplicity and poverty. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” depicts his life masterfully. A far cry from the religious zealots of his day, Francis shunned the way of force and lived the way of peace. In fact, he is credited as having told his followers once, “Preach the Gospel always. Use words if absolutely necessary.”

His 21st century namesake seems to be doing exactly that.

In what is probably a first for any Pontiff, Pope Francis actually made it to the cover of Rolling Stones magazine who in a January 2014 article titled, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, called him:

“…a man whose obvious humility, empathy and, above all, devotion to the economically disenfranchised has come to feel perfectly suited to our times…… His voice is disarmingly gentle, even when amplified over a vast public square. …After the disastrous papacy of Benedict, a staunch traditionalist …. Francis’ basic mastery of skills like smiling in public seemed a small miracle to the average Catholic. But he had far more radical changes in mind. By eschewing the papal palace for a modest two-room apartment, by publicly scolding church leaders for being “obsessed” with divisive social issues like gay marriage, birth control and abortion (“Who am I to judge?” Francis famously replied when asked his views on homosexual priests) and – perhaps most astonishingly of all – by devoting much of his first major written teaching to a scathing critique of unchecked free-market capitalism, the pope revealed his own obsessions to be more in line with the boss’ son.”

New era of openness

The times certainly are a changin’. The Pope is walkin’ his talk. An important clue to what awaits the Mother church and the Catholic world at large lies not just in the contents but also in the title of a moving book by Antonio Spardo about his conversations with Pope Francis called “My Door Is Always Open”.

“If a person says that he has met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. Claiming to have answers to all the questions is proof that God is not with that person. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble.”

This is good news indeed for an establishment that has bound by dogma and tradition for millennia. Perhaps the Church is standing on the verge of a new era of openness and humility.

George Bernard Shaw once astutely remarked, “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.” He was echoing the sentiments of his contemporary, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Perhaps that is where the Pope’s greatest appeal lies. He preaches a better sermon with his life than with his lips.

The writer is an educator who conducts community-building workshops for high school students and teachers.

  • Monika Narang

    This is the best article that I have read about faith and belief and thankfully that has nothing to do with religion. Thank you for being non preachy and so well researched. I run from anything remotely religious but I will surely keep an eye on this Pope now!

    Monika Narang

  • forsanity

    Excellent article. Very well written. The greatest thing I find in him is that he treads his own path without worrying about who is adopting him – whether it is the conservatives or the liberals. He has something for everyone and with that backing he is able to admonish them for the wrong thing each side is doing. This is a masterful act which all politicians aspire to, but cannot achieve. His “infallibility card” is helping him in this and he is putting it to its best possible use. All the power to Pope Francis if he can bring a certain gravitas and thereby bring some sense into everyone to come to an agreement on some of the biggest problems in the world.