Pope Francis pushes the church in the right direction



Matthew Sheridan

The Catholic Church is a church of contradictions. Beautiful, confusing, inspiring, maddening, awesome contradictions.

It was created centuries ago, yet still changes lives today. It touches people in all corners of the globe, but for much of its history has centered on a few influential men in Rome. It is so utterly spiritual and ethereal, yet is based on a principle that finds its divinity in the physical, the human. It is grounded in lessons of love and openness and acceptance, yet teaches a doctrine that can be interpreted as exclusivity.

It was in this climate of contradictions that Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Bishop of Rome in 2013, and it is in this climate of contradictions that Pope Francis visits the United States this week.

When Bergoglio, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected Pope in 2013, he was experiencing something no pope in modern memory had ever experienced—a predecessor who was still alive. In Benedict XVI, the Church had a leader who many considered to be rigid, extremely conservative and impersonal. Following the immensely popular John Paul II was no small task, but Benedict managed to somehow fail even modest expectations that many Catholics had for him.

As Benedict’s successor and replacement, Francis was always going to be compared directly to him. From his first public moments, Francis has inspired Catholics in the ways that Benedict once left them feeling cold. Whereas Benedict would dress in the traditional red shoes and gold accouterments of papal garb, Francis clothes himself in a simpler iron cross with black shoes. While Benedict lived in the grand Papal Apartments in the Apostolic Palace, Francis takes up residence in a three-room suite in the Santa Marta guesthouse in Vatican City. Benedict XVI rode in the fortified Popemobile. Pope Francis visits crowds in an open air Jeep Wrangler. Benedict was considered a priest of the Curia who spent his time before being elected in the government of the Church. Francis is a man of the people who embraced the slums of Argentina and took the bus to work.

The greatest of all these occurred on his plane on the way back from his first ever foreign trip, when he said mass before over 1 million people on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach. When a reporter asked him about homosexual priests in the Church, Francis simply responded, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Who am I to judge.

The simple, accepting nature of his response sent shockwaves throughout the world. In 2005, Benedict XVI described homosexuality as “a strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil.” Less than 10 years later, we now had the leader of our Church taking away so much of that vitriol and through his casual tone, managing to send a strong message about the nature of his papacy and the nature of our Church.

This feels like the Church we were raised in or came to through conversion—a Church of loving everyone for what they do and how they act, not who they are.

As a result, Catholics all over the world now feel a renewed connection to the Vatican, and in turn, their faith. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted recently, 53 percent of American Catholics approve strongly of the direction in which Pope Francis is leading the Church, while 26 percent approve somewhat. Perhaps more tellingly, 53 percent of Catholics think the Church is in touch with the needs of Catholics today. In February 2013, when Benedict announced his resignation, that number was 39 percent.

This can undoubtedly be attributed to Francis’s modern approach to many of the issues currently facing Catholics. Homosexuality, divorce and abortion are all things that are, if not completely accepted, more common and more discussed than ever before. According to The Shriver Report Snapshot Poll, 81 percent of American Catholics applaud the pope’s push towards LGBT acceptance, and 95 percent support openness to divorce and the acceptance of remarried Catholics in the Church.

Last week, Pope Francis announced that the Church will be allowing forgiveness for women who had abortions during a special “ year of mercy.” Additionally, the Vatican announced that it was simplifying the procedure to grant annulments. 

Up until very recently, another of the great contradictions of the Church was the people who make it feel one way, but the people whom it makes enforce another. Now, it is appearing that may change.

While these are not perfect steps, they are steps. They are messages. Hopefully Pope Francis’s trip to the United States this week will lead American Catholic laypeople and clergy to improve upon these messages and make the culture of openness, inclusivity and sensitivity the reality of our religion.

I am not expecting gay marriage or divorce to suddenly be legal in the Church. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Vatican City. However, this does not mean that we cannot act upon these messages and the inspiration behind them.