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Pope Francis at 5: Paradigm shift on mercy, migrants and marriage

Pope Francis, flanked by Master of Ceremonies Bishop Guido Marini, waves to faithful during the Urbi et Orbi (Latin for ' to the city and to the world' ) Christmas' day blessing from the main balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Monday, Dec. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Whenever Pope Francis visits prisons, during his whirlwind trips to the world’s peripheries or at a nearby jailhouse in Rome, he always tells inmates that he, too, could have ended up behind bars: “Why you and not me?” he asks.

That humble empathy and the ease with which he walks in others’ shoes have won Francis admirers around the globe and confirmed his place as a consummate champion of the poor and disenfranchised.

But as he marks the fifth anniversary of his election Tuesday and looks ahead to an already troubled 2018, Francis faces criticism for both the merciful causes he has embraced and the ones he has neglected. With women and sex abuse topping the latter list, a consensus view is forming that history’s first Latin American pope is perhaps a victim of unrealistic expectations and his own culture.

Nevertheless, Francis’ first five years have been a dizzying introduction to a new kind of pope, one who prizes straight talk over theology and mercy over morals — all for the sake of making the Church a more welcoming place for those who have felt excluded.

“I think he’s fantastic, very human, very simple,” Marina Borges Martinez, a 77-year-old retiree, said as she headed into evening Mass at a church in Sao Paulo, Brazil. “I think he’s managed to bring more people into the church with the way he is.”

Many point to his now famous “Who am I to judge?” comment about a gay priest as the turning point that disaffected Catholics had longed for and were unsure they would ever see.

Others hold out Francis’ cautious opening to allowing Catholics who remarry outside the church to receive Communion as his single most revolutionary step. It was contained in a footnote to his 2016 document “The Joy of Love.”

“I have met people who told me they returned to the Catholic faith because of this pope,” Ugandan Archbishop John Baptist Odama, who heads the local conference of Catholic bishops, said.

“Simple as he may be, he has passed a very powerful message about our God who loves everybody and who wants the salvation of everyone.”

Another area in which Francis has sought change extends into global politics, with his demand for governments and individuals to treat migrants as brothers and sisters in need, not as threats to society’s well-being and security.

After a visit to a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, Francis brought a dozen Syrian Muslim refugees home with him on the papal plane. The Vatican has turned over three apartments to refugee families. Two African migrants recently joined the Vatican athletics team.

His call has gone largely unanswered in much of Europe and the United States, though, where opposing immigration has become a tool in political campaigns. Italians in the pope’s backyard voted overwhelmingly this month for parties that have promised to crack down on migration, including with forced expulsions.

The Pew Research Center found that while Francis still enjoys a consistently high 84 percent favorability ratings among U.S. Catholics, an increasing number on the political right believe him to be “too liberal” and naive. Despite all the talk of “the Francis effect” bringing Catholics back to church, Pew found no evidence of a rise in self-proclaimed Catholics or Mass-goers.

Whether he ultimately will be remembered as a unifying or divisive figure, the world has gotten to know the man formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina who emerged on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica as pope on March 13, 2013, and quipped that his brother cardinals had to search to the “end of the Earth” to find a new leader.

There have been magical moments: When Francis wept hearing the life story of an Albanian priest who was tortured during communist rule, and later made the clergyman a cardinal. When his whispery voice weakened as he met with Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees and told them, “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

But not all are pleased.

When Francis created room for remarried Catholics to receive Communion, a few dozen traditionalist academics and clergy accused him of heresy. Four of his cardinals formally asked for clarification. Conservatives in the U.S. and Europe wrung their hands trying to square how Christ’s vicar on Earth could seemingly condone adultery under the guise of mercy.

“At the end of the day, ‘The Joy of Love’ is the result of a new paradigm that Pope Francis is bringing forward,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, said. “Probably the difficulty that exists in the church is due to this change of attitude that the pope is asking for.”

One cause Francis is accused of neglecting reared its head last week. A coalition of Catholic women gathered at Francis’ own Jesuit headquarters in Rome to demand he provide women with a voice and a place at the decision-making table in the Catholic Church.

“Women’s right to equality arises organically from divine justice. It does not and should not depend on ad hoc papal benevolence or magnanimity,” former Irish President Mary McAleese said.

To be fair, Francis appointed a study commission on ordaining women deacons. He has named a woman to head the Vatican City’s biggest cash cow, the Vatican Museums. He empowered ordinary priests, not just bishops, to absolve women who have had abortions and put Mary Magdalene on par with the male apostles by declaring a feast day in her honor.

But no woman heads a Holy See office, no woman sits on his kitchen cabinet. The Vatican’s women’s magazine ran a scathing expose this month of how nuns are treated like indentured servants by the bishops and cardinals they serve.

The other major unmet expectation is on the clerical sex abuse front. Francis set the bar high when he vowed “zero tolerance” for abuse, created an ad-hoc commission of experts to advise him and publicly pledged that bishops would be held accountable when they botched cases.

But he scrapped a planned tribunal to judge those bishops, allowed his advisory commission to lapse and most recently, shocked even his closest advisers by callously dismissing accusations of cover-up lodged by victims of Chile’s most notorious predator priest.

The episode further cemented the impression that the 81-year-old Jesuit simply hasn’t grasped how important the scandal is in many parts of the world, and how his papacy will be judged by it.

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AP writers Sarah DiLorenzo and Mauricio Savarese in Sao Paolo, and Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda contributed to this report.

About the author

Nicole Winfield

31 Comments

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  • It’s probably unrealistic to expect much real change, as opposed to talk. The RCC is too committed to revelation and tradition to facilitate much more than cosmetic variation on steady-as-she-goes..

    Is this Pope frustrated by his inability to make substantial improvements in many people’s lives? – maybe. Does it matter to those who are paying (physically and mentally) for the RCC’s extravagances? – I doubt it.

  • Meh…a leader of an increasingly marginalized sect. RCC will likely be not much in 30 years.

    “After a visit to a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece…”

    Ironic visit considering the RCC’s stance on homosexuality lol

  • too many comments could be made on that article.
    “Many point to his now famous “Who am I to judge?” comment about a gay priest as the turning point that disaffected Catholics had longed for and were unsure they would ever see.”
    We don’t judge immorality because Christ already has – He put a death sentence on it, and then allowed it to be their own choice. Sad, but it you don’t want to be with Christ here, He will not force you to spend eternity with Him.
    Just because the pope doesn’t have the care and concern to tell homosexuals they are hurting themselves, does not lessen the fact they are.
    That said, He is faithful to forgive and cleanse us of our sin, should we turn to Him, repent and follow Him.

  • On Pope Francis and the sex abuse scandal: “… the 81-year-old Jesuit simply hasn’t grasped how important the scandal is in many parts of the world, and how his papacy will be judged by it.”

    Yes. Pope Francis has done little more than the very little that JPII and BXVI did regarding the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church. I think something could still come from the Commission he formed and from his response to the criticism after his visit to Chile that lead to appointing Scicluna to investigate.

    But I also think Pope Francis has opened a door to change and renewal that had been closed for so long that he is hit with a deluge of problems that built up behind the wall that prior popes built. There is so much that needs to be done – on sex abuse, women, LGBT, remarried Catholics, clericalism, liturgy that appeals, a mythos/ethos that reflects what modern science has taught us of matter, the universe, humanity. It is impossible to address them all.

    The second impediment is the idea that because something was once thought true it must be always considered true. Both the idea of infallibility and the idolization of “Tradition” have created a Church that cannot come into the present times but must live out of a Middle Ages cultural/scientific/philosophical paradigm.

    Still, Francis has opened a door and let some light in. It is light that will help us see not just a new way to understand marriage breakdown and remarriage, but will also shine a light on other issues. He and we just have to turn our heads and look.

  • You don’t know about her soft core porn photo shoot. More air brushing than a million pigeons. Google it.

    All I can say is, I’m glad Barbara Bush never did soft core lesbian porn. Those were the days!

  • I don’t believe I have. But, if you can show it to me, I probably wouldn’t deny it. That said, most people in churches are not Christian – that is more likely what I said, Ben.

  • Instead of his getting involved in “global politics,” it would be most important and beneficial to instead follow the example of Jesus, who preached and taught the good news about God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Matthew 4:17) as the only hope for mankind on earth.

    That heavenly government will soon replace all of man’s governments (Daniel 2:44), rule directly over us (Isaiah 11:1-5), and put an end to all our problems on earth (Revelation 21:3,4).

    Thankfully, that “good news” is being preached worldwide before the end of this wicked era comes (Matthew 24:14).

  • Francis, his stress on divine mercy notwithstanding, is demonstrating the real limits facing any progressive pope in the early 21st century. I’m not convinced any future Vatican II-oriented pope will be able to change church policy on contentious issues such as women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, and communion for the divorced & separated. The institutional church, focused on medieval thinking, seems to have boxed itself into a corner. Perhaps educated, informed, and concerned Catholics will no longer want to be associated with the Vatican albatross???

  • Of course, you are, dearie 🙂

    “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye” (Mt 6:41-42).

  • If I were a homosexual condemning other homosexuals, your scripture reference would have been accurate.

  • The pope needs to realize that the kingdom of God is not an earthly political kingdom.
    “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
    “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (John 6:15)
    “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ ” (John 18:36)

  • Jared,

    Exactly! As Matthew 4:17 brings out: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, “Repent: for the kingdom of HEAVEN is at hand.” It is a heavenly government for the benefit of mankind on earth.

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