Rock star

Has it been only a year? It feels much longer than that—and not because of a sense of tedium or despair, but because of the myriad little things that add up to what looks like a sea change in the Vatican ever since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope and took the name Francis in March 2013.

Make no mistake: The Catholic Church has not changed one whisker of its core teachings. Pope Francis’ ascension to the throne of St. Peter has not led to a relaxation of the Church’s adamant stand against such hot-button issues as contraception, divorce, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, the ordination of women—what it routinely calls the ills of the modern secular world. In these parts, members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines are still wont to blame the Reproductive Health Law—currently stalled in the Supreme Court—and similar “ungodly laws” for such calamities as Supertyphoon “Yolanda.”

But if local bishops continue to work themselves up against such issues, Francis himself has been markedly silent about these—so much so that conservative American Catholics, among the most vocal in the so-called “culture wars,” have been reported to grumble that they feel abandoned by Rome. In a notable break with his predecessors, Francis has dialed down the divisive pontificating.

Instead, one of his first acts was to chide his fellow Church leaders for “being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures,” urging them to rechannel their energies toward a more fundamental role for the Church: as a defender of the poor, as a bastion of kindness and compassion in an increasingly brutalized world—in other words, as a champion of the weak, and not as their cold inquisitor. Priests, he said, should take a break from the secure, cloistered world they’ve grown accustomed to and go out “to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters.”

Not only has he lived up to his own advice, he has also set the template for his papacy with seemingly small but momentous gestures. He has dispensed with the pomp attendant to his position, preferring simple garb and spartan accommodations in the Vatican. He washed the feet of juvenile prisoners—two of them Muslim, one a woman—on Maundy Thursday last year. He recognized the validity of gay people’s spirituality (“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”). Right in the Sistine Chapel, he baptized a child born to parents still unmarried in the eyes of the Church (they wed at city hall and not at the altar). He has participated in a selfie with delighted newlyweds, clowned around with ordinary devotees, and generally conducted himself in public with charm, gentleness and good humor.

The startling change in tone from the harsh, exclusionary rhetoric of Benedict XVI to the more inclusive language now employed by Francis has galvanized the Church, and has made its leader a veritable rock star, conquering not only the hearts of people worldwide but also the covers of Time and Rolling Stone magazines. As Mark Binelli’s superb profile of the Pope in Rolling Stone notes: “Against the absurd, impossibly baroque backdrop of the Vatican, a world still run like a medieval court, Francis’ election represents what his friend Elisabetta Piqué, an Argentine journalist who has known him for a decade, calls ‘a scandal of normality.’”

These changes have not gone down without some panic and resentment among the traditional-minded. A number of bishops have publicly expressed reservations at Francis’ aversion to any severe, line-in-the-sand talk on contraception, abortion et al. But as Msgr. Paul Tighe of the Vatican’s social communications office was quoted as saying, “People were reacting, ‘God, he’s breaking the rules!’ But in a sense he was bringing us back to the radicality of the choice of Jesus.”

Is Francis’ achievement of making the Church “cool” again indeed drawing alienated Catholics back into the fold? A study in the United States suggests that while he is immensely popular among Catholics of that country, it has not translated yet to increased numbers in churches. But the results may be different in other countries such as the Philippines, where Catholicism remains fervently practiced.

Still, the more important question is this: whether Francis’ message of openness and compassion is being heard by his fellow bishops hereabouts.

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