If you paid any attention to the trip of the Roman Catholic Pope Francis to Brazil (the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world), there was a welcoming to that South American country of the first South American pope that truly rose to unprecedented levels. Besides the outpouring of crowds at every appearance, it is Francis in humility and benevolence that is impressive and indeed Christ-like. In fact, it is becoming increasingly more obvious that he may be the pope (in recent memory) who is closest to Jesus in terms of practicing what was preached over 2000 years ago .
There were the inevitably huge crowds – the one at the Mass at Copacabana Beach was estimated at 3 million – with large TV screens projecting Pope Francis’s image as if he were a super rock star giving an electrifying performance, but the music to the ears of those in attendance were words and not lyrics. The fact that so many people sought his message is perhaps not as astounding as it may seem to some people, and it also is reminiscent of the large (but obviously much smaller) crowds that turned out to hear Jesus speak wherever he made an appearance.
Despite the great opportunity and spectacle of the pope’s visit to Brazil, the even greater sound bites were to be found on Monday during the flight back to Rome. As people begin to digest the essence of what Pope Francis was saying in his dialogue with reporters on the plane, the reality is that Pope Francis made a stance that is profoundly Christ-like. He said, in reference to gay priests, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” This is amazing in its openness and clarity – it also echoes the Gospels where Christ again and again tells those who want him to condemn others that they should not judge lest they be judged.
The conversation with reporters was wide ranging, including the controversial issue of the Vatican Bank (I.O.R.) scandal. Francis said of the future of the bank that “whatever the I.O.R. becomes requires transparency and honesty.” Yes, those who believe Francis to be a breath of fresh air in the stodgy and stagnant old vaults of the past are more than correct, honoring his namesake Francis of Assisi in his clarity and directness.
On an even more pressing topic, Francis addressed the role of women in the church. Most Catholics know that if it were not for women, the church not doubt would have crumbled long ago, with many of the religious nuns and sisters carrying the heavy weight all over the world as the number of priests declined. While all popes before him ruled out female religious becoming priests, Francis opened the door wider by saying that the “theology of women” had to be explored, insinuating that long established supporting roles may be enhanced in the future.
Getting back to the old business as usual approach at the Vatican, Francis noted that the Synod of Bishops was in need of some kind of realignment, no doubt an attempt to bring them (perhaps kicking and screaming) into the 21st century where they have not kept up with the needs and realities of their constituencies.
While it seems that Pope Francis’s advisors were against the pope speaking candidly with reporters, it was his desire to do so. This again is quite Christ-like, for Jesus never wanted “handlers” between him and the people. It was Jesus’s style to press the flesh, to sit and engage in discourse, usually with all those whom society tended to shun. Jesus was more than just a religious leader but understood the psychology and economics of his time perhaps much more astutely than Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx respectively knew theirs.
Francis indeed is following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and many Catholics are breathing a deep sigh of relief and thinking, “It’s about time!” If established Christian religions teach people to be exclusionary and egocentric, it has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. Reading the Gospels will elucidate for any reader that Jesus had open arms for anyone and everyone. When he spoke of many mansions in his father’s house (John 14:2), Jesus referred to inclusion of all people. He never turned away anyone, least of all the diseased, the afflicted, the despised, the misunderstood, and most especially the poor.
This impromptu news conference aboard the papal plane was certainly something Jesus would have done. In this 80 minute conversation with reporters, Pope Francis opened eyes and hearts and minds – and his willingness to bend, to be open to all who hear his voice, will not only endear him to many more than all those who saw him in Brazil – it may just be the way to chart the course for a much brighter future for the Catholic Church.
Photo credits: Pope on plane-national catholic reporter; brazil crowd-guardian.co.uk; nuns-en.academic.ru