Pope Francis, elected just a year ago this month, has already made a strong impression around the world, and not just with Roman Catholics. Time magazine named him its person of the year, as did the Italian edition of Vogue. At World Youth Day in Brazil, he celebrated mass for more than 3 million people on the beach at Copacabana.
Why all the celebrity? He is the first non-European pope in many centuries. The man selected by the red-robed cardinals who assembled at the Vatican last March to elect a new pope was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Mario Jorge Bergoglio. Already in Argentina he was unusual. Known as “the people’s archbishop,” he spurned the episcopal palace and chose to live in a simple apartment elsewhere in the city, taking the bus to work. He wore the garb of an ordinary priest and walked often among the poor.
As pope he has continued this same humble style. On the day of his election, as he spoke to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, he called on them to pray for him and to bless him before he blessed them.
As in his home country, he has chosen to dwell not in the luxurious papal apartments but in a simple room in the Vatican guesthouse, where he has breakfast every morning with the other residents and conducts a brief prayer service for them. He has given up the red papal shoes and elaborate garments, favoring a simple white cassock. Disdaining the official Mercedes limousine, he uses a 20-year old Renault with 190,000 miles that was given to him by a retired priest, or for longer trips, a modest Ford Focus.
Pope Francis has called for “a poor church for the poor.” He removed a German bishop, known as the “Bishop of Bling,” who had spent more than $40 million on his episcopal residence and office complex. And he has introduced major reforms at the Vatican Bank and in the Curia (the Vatican administration), with the promise of much more to come.
The pope has the unsettling habit of picking up the phone, without any secretarial intermediaries, and calling people who have written him about their problems. He keeps in touch with old friends in Argentina, including Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he wrote On Heaven and Earth, based on a popular TV series similar to America’s God Squad.
Francis has also reached out to Muslims and adherents of other faiths, as well as atheists, holding a long written and oral dialogue with a leading Italian nonbeliever.
On Maundy Thursday during Holy Week after his election, Pope Francis held the traditional foot washing in a very nontraditional way. Instead of washing the feet of 12 selected priests in a Vatican chapel, he went to a detention center for juvenile offenders in the city and washed the feet of 12 inmates. The group included two females and two Muslims — again, a highly significant symbolic action.
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers