Just one year ago today, white smoke rose from the chimney overlooking Vatican Square, signaling the end of the two day papal conclave – and the election of a new pope.
In recent years and leading up to the resignation of the papacy by Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican has been plagued with scandal and allegations – of everything from sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests and its cover-up by their bishops to discrepancies and accusations of smuggling and money laundering millions of dollars through the Vatican bank.
Upon his election, many of the faithful were hoping the former Cardinal of Argentina would bring some level of respectability, austerity and honor back to the Holy See. Yet there were vocal skeptics who feared the ‘out with the old and in with the new’ transition in Vatican City would merely bring more of the same.
For example, GLAAD President Herndon Graddick responded to last year’s election of Pope Francis by stating:
For decades the Catholic hierarchy has been in need of desperate reform. In his life, Jesus condemned gays zero times. In Pope Benedict’s short time in the papacy, he made a priority of condemning gay people routinely. This, in spite of the fact that the Catholic hierarchy had been in collusion to cover up the widespread abuse of children within its care. We hope this Pope will trade in his red shoes for a pair of sandals and spend a lot less time condemning and a lot more time foot-washing.
One year later, it appears Francis has done just that.
On the night of his election, the newly appointed Pope Francis rode the bus back to his hotel with the cardinals, rather than being driven in the papal car (he later rejected the notion of a Popemobile, instead opting to drive around the town in his own car which was donated to him by a Catholic priest from northern Italy). From the outset of his papacy, Francis has chosen to use the global spotlight provided by his holy office to focus predominately on the Church’s mandate to serve the poor and reach out to the marginalized. He has quite literally washed the feet of juvenile prisoners and Muslim women during holy week, skipped out on lavish concertos presented in his honor and instead invited the homeless to dine at the Vatican.
While previous popes were reported to sneak out in the evenings to enjoy the beauty of Rome or visit art exhibits unannounced, speculations were confirmed late last year that Pope Franics has been venturing out the Vatican at night, disguised as a priest to meet with and minister to the homeless in Rome.
Francis has added a personal touch to the papal office by reaching out via personal phone calls in response to letters from both the faithful and unfaithful alike, earning him the nickname of the ‘cold call pope.’
This image of him kissing the face of a man with a rare illness which caused bulbous tumors all over his body quickly circulated around the world – and it seems bit by bit the reputation of the Church is being healed by the actions of one man.
Francis has begun financial reform within the Vatican as well. Earlier this year, Francis removed four of the five appointed cardinals from an oversight body just 11 months into their five year terms as financial commissioners – a direct break with the clerical financial establishment Francis inherited from Benedict XVI. As recently as last month, Francis further revolutionized the Vatican’s scandal-plagued finances, inviting outside experts to scrutinize a previously hidden financial maze seen as both murky and secretive. The Church’s primary concern, Francis said, would be a ‘particular concern for the most needy.’
Not quite more of the same, is it?
Regardless of our religious affiliation – whether Catholic or Protestant – no one can deny the incredible influence and warm welcome this Pope has received, from even some of the most unlikely sources.
One example is The Human Rights Campaign – the largest LGBT advocacy group in the United States. After an interview in which Francis declined an opportunity to cast condemnation on LGBT people but instead responded with questioning the reporter, ‘If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?’, the HRC posted on their website, ‘Thank you, Pope Francis – LGBT people everywhere.’ And while more media attention surrounded the appointing of Francis as TIME Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year,’ perhaps even more impressive was the awarding of the new pope with that same honor by The Advocate – one of the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* publications available.
Definitely not ‘more of the same.
Francis seems compelled by the example of Jesus found within the Gospels and in the very nature of the Incarnation, encouraging priests to leave their comfort zones and spend time amongst people at the margins of society. In his admonition, he continued, “This is really important to me: the need to become acquainted with reality by experience, to spend time walking on the periphery in order really to become acquainted with the reality and life-experiences of people - if this does not happen then we run the risk of being abstract ideologists or fundamentalists, which is not healthy.”
There can be no denying the incredible impact Pope Francis has made in just a very short time, helping to heal the Church’s damaged reputation within contemporary culture. As his papacy crosses the one year mark and enters into year number two, I wonder how many other leaders within our faith will follow suit… and what type of an impact that will have.
What do you think?