Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A year of being Pope Francis

Pope Francis / "A man who laughs, cries, sleeps soundly and
has friends like everyone else. Just a normal person."

We're a year into the Pope Francis era. It's been filled with much hero-worship and adulation. Francis has graced the cover of Rolling Stone and been named Time magazine's Person of the Year. He's greeted by adoring fans wherever he goes. Among American Catholics, the 77-year-old Argentinean pontiff, born Jorge Mario Bergolio, is enjoying greater popularity than Pope Benedict XVI did in February of last year, when he suddenly announced his resignation.

Pope Francis, often pictured smiling in his white cassock, has shown much energy and charisma in shaping a new tone around the Vatican. He's become more open in granting interviews to the mainstream media while also embracing social media as a viable means for spreading the message and values as the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. 

Pope Francis waves at adoring
crowd in St. Peter's Square.
Noted for his humility, his concern for the poor, and his commitment to dialogue as a means of building bridges to between people of all backgrounds, beliefs and faiths, Francis "has dramatically altered the style of the papacy, making a series of symbolic choices that have solidified his persona as a plain-living, down-to-earth and genial head of the Catholic church," the London-based Guardian wrote earlier this month.

Now, a new poll out just in time for Lent reveals that a broad majority of American Catholics say Pope Francis represents not only a major change in direction for the church, but a change for the better. And yet, the poll conducted last month by the Pew Research Center suggests "his popularity has not inspired more Americans to attend Mass, go to confession or identify as Catholic — a finding that suggests that so far, the much-vaunted 'Francis effect' is influencing attitudes, but not behavior," The New York Times reported last week.

The poll, conducted between Feb. 14-23, included 1,821 adults. There was a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points for all Americans, and six percentage points for the subgroup of 351 Catholics.

"Francis, who draws giddy teenagers to his Wednesday audiences and generates Twitter traffic with every public remark, has clearly invigorated the church," The New York Times wrote. "But the poll finds that Francis has raised expectations of significant change, even though he has alluded that he may not alter the church’s positions on thorny doctrinal issues."

Among the poll's findings: Almost six in 10 American Catholics said they expected the church "would definitely or probably lift its prohibition on birth control by the year 2050, while half said the church would allow priests to marry." Also, four in 10 said they thought the church would ordain women as priests, and "more than two-thirds said it would recognize same-sex marriages by 2050." Further, "large majorities of American Catholics said they wanted the church to change on the first three matters, and half wanted the church to recognize same-sex marriages."

Pope Francis / A mixture of
homespun personality and
As he reaches the first anniversary of his papacy this week, on March 13, among the priority issues that Pope Francis has faced during his first year include: addressing a clergy sex-abuse scandal, spreading the Catholic faith, standing for traditional moral values, addressing the needs and concerns of the poor, and overhauling the Vatican bureaucracy. He's tackling all the important issues of the day with a mixture of homespun personality and compassion. Seventy-one percent of those polled believe that Pope Francis represented a "major change in direction."

Finally, while the papal vestments include the wearing of a cape, the pontiff said he shouldn't be called a Superman. "To paint the Pope as a sort of Superman, a kind of star, seems offensive to me," Francis told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. "The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps soundly and has friends like everyone else. A normal person."

• • •

Note: To learn more about the first year of Pope Francis, I encourage you to read John Cornwell's excellent feature in the March 7 issue of The Financial Times.

Photographs courtesy: CNN.com, Telegraph.co.uk, theguardian.com.

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