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Pope Francis ... the smiling pope
Reflecting on the anger, bitterness and violence that punctuated much of the year just past, I resolved to start the new year with acknowledgment of some positive development. Some sign of hope, as it were. I found it in, of all places, the Catholic Church. Or rather, the Vatican. Actually, to be specific, in the Pope.
Pope Francis, the people's pope, has been a revelation and a one-man revolution within an organization that has been entrenched in dogma and shielded by ceremony for centuries. Since his surprise election to the papacy nearly two years ago, the Argentinian prelate has seemed to revel in speaking and acting like a, well, like a man of God. A least what my definition of such a person would be: Humble, unassuming, honest, approachable, compassionate, non-judgmental, empathic and realistic.
Francis, the 266th pope, brought a positive note to the end of a brutally negative 2014 by: (1) Convincing President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to reestablish normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, ending more than 50 years of pretending they weren't neighbors; (2) announcing that the Catholic Church would be committed to fighting global warming. Diplomacy and science have not exactly been prominent issues for popes for some time.
These actions came at the end of a year in which Francis consistently and passionately criticized the culture of greed that has claimed much of the planet, resulting in the very rich getting even richer and much of the rest of the population struggling to simply exist. "The excluded are still waiting'" he has said of the false promise of "trickle-down" economics.
To top it off, in case no one was paying attention, Francis, who has shunned many of the papal trappings, used his Christmas address to the cardinals at the Vatican to scold them for their personal ambition, pettiness and attitude of superiority to the people they, in fact, are sworn to serve. In other words, time to change your focus, fellas.
Along the way, indicating that the Catholic Church is not, as some have suggested, totally anti-science, he has declared that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are, indeed, real, and can co-exist with the Church's teaching of Creation. "God is not a magician with a magic wand," he has said.
He has also encouraged cardinals to be less-obsessed with birth control and homosexuality ("Who am I to judge?") and more committed to helping the world's poor. And he has moved decisively to remove more of the stain of sexual abuse by priests that has been the most dominant issue associated with the Church for several decades.
All of this has angered conservative Catholics and especially conservative politicians who have counted on implicit papal endorsement for their views (especially on social issues) for many years. Suddenly, the pope's infallibility on how we should treat each other and the planet we share is open to, not just question, but outright challenge. Fox News is apoplectic.
So be it. As a leader with no armies, the Roman Catholic pope can sway millions simply with his words and actions. Yes, the church is wealthy. Yes, it has political influence. Yes, it has an investment in repairing its soiled image and attracting new followers to replace those who left it because of the sexual-abuse scandals.
Still, whatever one's religious views, I believe that sometimes a person comes along and takes everyone by surprise by doing the unexpected. In Francis' case, by acting like a humble servant of his God, rather than like the exalted ruler of some chosen group of people. Given the symbolic power of the position, this is huge.
I am sure the former cardinal from Argentina -- a supposedly safe, compromise choice -- has many cardinals shaking their heads today and wondering, "Tell me again; why did we vote for him?"
And that may be the most positive thing of all about Pope Francis. He has begun a discussion within the Vatican, within the Catholic Church and, by his involvement in global issues, throughout the world, on what our role is in relation to each other. It may be a discussion that will reveal the hypocrisy and greed that permeate today's society. Perhaps it will even answer the question of what it means to be thy brother's keeper.
That's pretty hopeful stuff to me.