Who is Pope Francis? A primer on the pontiff

Pope Francis1
Pope Francis lets fly a white dove in St. Peter’s Square in 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

He was a dark horse in the papal election, a little-known Argentine cardinal who rarely traveled outside South America and whose emergence as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics surprised even the most experienced Vatican-watchers.

Less than three years into his tenure and with his first trip to the United States at hand, Pope Francis continues to surprise.

On issues that represent the third rail of Catholicism — divorce, abortion and homosexuality — Francis has projected a far softer stance than his predecessors, roiling some in the church and winning fans among those who chafed under Catholicism’s inviolable doctrines.

He has criticized clerics who favor luxury over simplicity and vowed to hold accountable bishops who enabled or covered up the sexual abuse of minors. He has invited dissent, urging bishops and cardinals to freely speak their minds as they chart the church’s future.

And he has taken on governments and institutions, blasting unregulated, global capitalism as a blight on the poor and the environment.

More broadly, the 78-year-old pontiff has employed both impish charisma and frank dialogue to enliven a religion at risk of losing followers to more flexible faiths, analysts said.

“I never thought I would see a pope like this in my lifetime,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, who has written extensively about the papacy as a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “He’s changing the priorities and style of Catholicism, and that’s just an extraordinary thing to do.

“To use a secular analogy, he’s rebranding Catholicism,” Reese said. “He’s stressing the compassion and mercy and love of God toward us as opposed to the rules and regulations we’re supposed to be following.”

To be sure, Francis has not changed centuries-old church doctrine. Sin remains sin. But the pope’s more relaxed stance on hot-button issues and his pastoral approach have struck a deep chord with the faithful, said Christopher Bellitto, an expert on the papacy and an associate professor of history at Kean University.

“He is tapping into a silent majority of Catholics who have been very disaffected by the extreme politics of the pulpit and the very doctrine-heavy public face of Catholicism over the past 20 to 25 years,” Bellitto said.

That period includes the tenures of Benedict XVI, a reserved theologian who became the first pope in 400 years to resign, and the beloved John Paul II, who, afflicted with advanced Parkinson’s Disease, largely fell silent in his final years.

‘Who am I to judge?’

Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis is a man of firsts. First pope from South America, home to 28 percent of the world’s Catholics. First Jesuit to be elected pontiff. And, perhaps, first pope in generations to boldly tread where previous church leaders have dared not or cared not go.

It was just four months into Francis’ papacy, on a flight returning to Rome from Brazil, when the pope stunned the reporters accompanying him — and in short order Catholics across the world — as he discussed the topic of gay men in the priesthood.

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” Francis said. “We shouldn’t marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society.”

The comment represented a sharp about-face from Catholic orthodoxy and from the views of Benedict, who in 2005 released a document stating men with deep-seated gay tendencies should not be priests.

Early last month, Francis delved into another controversial issue, urging priests to welcome divorced men and women into the church with “doors wide open.”

Though he did not go further — most of those who are divorced may not celebrate the sacraments of communion or confession — the statement sent a dramatic signal of acceptance.

Then on Sept. 1, Francis sent new tremors through the church, issuing a letter allowing priests — during a so-called Year of Mercy that runs from Dec. 8 until Nov. 20, 2016 — to grant absolution to women who have had abortions, a “moral evil” that results in immediate excommunication.

Traditionally, only bishops have had the authority to forgive the act, though in the United States, some bishops, including Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, have allowed rank-and-file priests to do so.

In his letter, the pope did not minimize the church’s fierce opposition to abortion, which it considers murder. But he expressed sympathy for women who have had abortions, particularly those women who believed they had no choice.

“I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision,” Francis wrote, drawing on his experience as a parish priest in Argentina and as the archbishop of Buenos Aires. “I am well aware of the pressure that led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”

A willingness to criticize

It was in Argentina that Francis first demonstrated his willingness to challenge power.

As archbishop, he criticized the government’s “crony capitalism” and treatment of the poor during an economic crisis that rocked the nation in 2001, leading to high unemployment, riots and political turmoil, said Reese, the National Catholic Reporter analyst.

“He’s not the kind of Argentine nationalist who thinks his country can do no wrong,” Reese said. “He’s going to be critical of the faults of any country. That’s part of his job as pope, to point out when policies are not following gospel values.”

He has challenged governments to do more to spare the environment and to address climate change, calling global warming a manmade problem that threatens to turn the world into an “immense pile of filth.”

Since his election by the College of Cardinals, Francis has pointed the finger within the church as well.

Stressing the need for humility among priests, he has criticized bishops who live “like princes,” and just seven months into his tenure, he removed a German bishop who had spent $42 million on a lavish renovation of his residence and other church buildings.

Bellitto, the papal expert from Kean University, said the pope is working to change the culture among bishops, urging reform from the heart.

“A lot of bishops are now saying, ‘We really should be working in the soup kitchens,’ and they’re putting their cufflinks away,” Bellitto said.

Francis is not the first pontiff to address the sexual abuse crisis, but he has gone farther than his predecessors to hold church leaders accountable, establishing a tribunal to judge those accused of harboring predators.

The first bishop scheduled to stand trial — Jozef Wesolowski, a former Vatican diplomat accused of paying to have sex with children in the Dominican Republic — died last month before the proceedings against him began.

Francis’ activism has not endeared him to everyone. Some conservative Catholics, especially, have found his comments about capitalism and homosexuality offensive.

“Here’s what I’ve heard: that he’s Obama in a white dress, that he thinks he’s Robin Hood and wants to rob from the rich and give to the poor,” Bellitto said.

Despite that criticism, Bellitto and Reese said they expect Francis to receive a hero’s welcome in the United States.

“I think he will be extremely warmly received by the people,” Bellitto said. “We haven’t seen screams like this for a pope since John Paul II arrived in 1979, and we hadn’t seen screams like that since the Beatles came in the 1960s.”

Read the story at NJ.com (Sept. 20, 2015)

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