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Pope Francis

Pope Francis

The greatest failure of leadership in today’s world is the failure on the part of the leaders to practice what they preach. This leadership failure is found not only among the political leaders but also among the religious leaders and the leaders of other organizations. Pope Francis from the day one onwards has been trying his best to practice what he tells others to do. The latest example is his asking apology to a woman for losing patience on December 31. While greeting the crowd in front of the Vatican nativity scene on December 31, a woman pulled the pope’s arm. Visibly upset, Pope Francis slapped her hand and walked away, being upset.

“Many times we lose our patience; me too. I apologise for yesterday’s bad example,” Pope Francis said in a departure from his prepared remarks for the Angelus prayer on January 1. In his first Mass of the New Year, the pontiff declared that "every form of violence against women is a blasphemy against God, who was born of a woman." After his impromptu apology, the pope said that contemplating the nativity scene helps one to see with the eyes of faith a vision of “the renewed world, freed from the dominion of evil and placed under the royal lordship of Christ, the Child who lies in the manger.” Indeed, Pope Francis has proved once again that he is an authentic disciple of Jesus. Only a spiritual person has the guts to say, “I did a mistake and I apologize”.  Pope Francis leads by his example. 

Many leaders refuse to acknowledge their weaknesses, failures and mistakes. Some of them are so arrogant that they are not ready even to listen to those who have different views. The nation-wide protest in India to Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) for more about a month has rattled the BJP government. Even then the government is adamant on its decision. It is not ready to talk to the youth who have taken the lead in protesting against the discriminatory, exclusive and anti-constitutional law.  The PM and the Home Minister are reluctant to review the wrong decision they have taken despite the massive protests throughout the country.

Pope Francis not only speaks about the need for forgiveness but he also practises it. For example, Mario Palmaro, a conservative bioethicist co-authored an essay titled “We Do Not Like This Pope” that hinted that Pope Francis is the Antichrist because of his heterodox ideas. Palmaro was particularly appalled by the interview Pope Francis granted the atheist editor of the Italian daily La Repubblica, in which the Pope was quoted as saying, “I believe in God, not a Catholic God.” But in November 2019, after Palmaro came down with a debilitating disease, Francis telephoned to console him. “I was so moved by the phone call that I was not able to conduct much conversation,” Palmaro told reporters. “He just wanted to tell me that he is praying for me,” said Palmaro.  

Pope Francis has many critics because of his unorthodox policies and practices. A group of Catholics wrote a letter accusing him of heresy and urged the bishops to denounce him. But the Pope is never revengeful to his critics. While returning from his trip to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius on September 10, 2019, he told the journalists, “Criticism is always helpful.” He also said that certain type of criticism- “arsenic criticism can make you angry.” Being open to criticism shows the greatness of a leader. Will the Church leaders who issue gag orders to silence their critics learn from the Pope?

A theme that runs through the speeches and writings of Pope Francis is concern for the poor. “Go out to meet the poor, listen to them, and speak to them with the heart of Jesus”, Pope Francis said on 9th November 2019 at a Mass in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. The Pope has not only placed the poor at the centre of the Church but also brought it to the centre of global debate by highlighting the issues like climate change, migration and the post-2008 rethinking of capitalist economics. His apostolic letter, Evangelii Gaudium included a call for a tolerant, joyous Catholicism open to the world, especially to the poor of the world. “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium.

But many capitalists were jolted by Francis' blunt attack on the global economic system as "unjust at its root." He expanded the theme in his landmark environmental encyclical, "Laudato Si'," in which he held rich countries most responsible for climate change and asked them to help poor ones deal with the crisis. Later in a visit to Bolivia, Pope Francis compared the excesses of capitalism to the "dung of the devil" and apologized for the church's role in Spanish colonialism in Latin America. In fact, it was a warning of the "new colonialism" of materialism, inequality and exploitation.

Pope Francis’s concern and love for the poor are reflected in his simple and humble life. His life is the symbol of the change the Church needs today- a transition from the Constantine style to Jesus’ style.  When he was made Cardinal in 2001 he asked his friends and well-wishers from Buenos Aires not to come to Rome but to give that money for the welfare of the poor. As a Cardinal he left his official residence and lived in an apartment; he cooked his own dinner. He travelled by ordinary public transport rather than the official conveyance.

As it was widely reported in the media, on the day he was elected Pope, he broke several hitherto practised protocols: he preferred his ordinary black shoes to the papal red ones; instead of taking the Pope's limousine waiting for him he got into the bus to go to his residence. After he was elected Pope he chose to live in Santa Marta, a hostel, rather than the Papal Palace. He offers Mass in a small chapel in the hostel. His audiences are not the cardinals of the Roman Curia but gardeners, janitors and Vatican office workers. Pope Francis is not merely presiding but preaches without notes as if he is a simple parish priest.

On Maundy Thursday (March 28, 2013) he chose to go to a detention centre at Casal del Marmo. He washed the feet of 12 detainees, among whom were Orthodox Christians, Muslims and two women as well. Later he made it mandatory to include women in the feet washing ritual on Maundy Thursday. Pope Francis’ compassionate attitude towards the socially and religiously ostracized groups is reflected in his response to a question regarding homosexuals, "Who am I to judge?"

Pope Francis started the practice of celebrating the World Day of the Poor in 2016. He celebrated the World Day of the Poor in 2017 by saying Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The mass was attended by many poor people, and Pope Francis had lunch with more than 1,500 of them afterwards in the Paul VI Audience Hall.

For years the Church has been in the service of the poor. Catholic priests, nuns and lay workers the world over have long toiled for the poor. However, the Church hierarchy had consciously avoided critiquing the political and economic system that generates poverty and inequality. When such a critique did emerge from within the Church, during the 1960s and 1970s, in the form of “liberation theology”, the Vatican had stifled it. Pope Francis’ statements and writings are in a way reviving the fundamentals of liberation theology.  

Pope Francis has stopped the practice of granting priests the honorific title of monsignor as a way to stem careerism in the ranks and put the focus instead on pastoring. He told a gathering of his diplomats that he wanted them to identify candidates for bishops in their home countries who are, he said, “gentle, patient and merciful, animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life.” To Francis, poverty isn’t simply about charity; it’s also about justice.

Pope Francis had the courage to suspend a bishop in Limburg, Germany, for implementing a $42.5 million renovation of his residence that included a $20,500 bathtub. Since the Pope himself is living a simple life, avoiding all pomp and glory, he has the moral authority to take action on those who lavishly spend the resources of the Church. There is an urgent need for making the Church leaders accountable to the community.

Pope Francis while returning to Rome after his visit to Greek Island of Lesbos on his private jet, took with him 12 refugees, including six children. They were settled and given job and the Vatican met all their expenses. This is another example on the part of the Pope that he practises what he preaches. 

Pope Francis wants to make the Church a participatory Church. That is why he chose to gather a group of advisors around him, initially known as the C8, then the C9 when he added Cardinal Parolin. They meet periodically to advise the Pope. Will the Church leaders follow the example of Pope Francis? Will the efforts of Pope Francis to make the Church participatory, transparent and accountable, filter to the lower levels of Church hierarchy?

Pope Francis has proved that he is truly a servant of the people of God. In 2015, at the 50 th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, he said in his speech, “Let us never forget this! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of service; the only power is the power of the cross.

Unfortunately, many Church leaders in India have failed to follow the example of Pope Francis in simplicity and the attitude of service. Many Church leaders appear to be living in the Constantine era and they behave as if they are the owners not only of the wealth of the Church but also of the people. They believe that they have the right to control even the freedom of speech of the members of the Church.

Pope Francis called the Presidents of Bishops Conferences from all over the world to Rome in February 2019 to discuss the issue of the sexual abuse of minors. According to Pope Francis clericalism is at the heart of this crisis. One of his priorities is to end clericalism and empower the laity, and he has been clear “To say NO to abuse is to say an empathic No to all forms of clericalism.”

Pope Francis did not issue any encyclical or apostolic letter about dogma, liturgy and laws. The themes he chose are related to the issues affecting humanity. Through Laudato Si, he was drawing the attention of the world leaders to a burning issue that affects the whole world. His attempt is to liberate the Church from legalism, ritualism and dogmatism which Jesus had condemned.

On May 18, 2013, in his address in St Peter's Square, the Pope said: “Today's world stands in great need of witnesses, not so much of teachers but rather of witnesses. It is not so much about speaking, but rather speaking with our whole lives.” Hailing from Latin America with deep experiences of living with the poor and reflecting on their lives, his message is down to earth. He has made the Church leaders uncomfortable, pointing out that reforms and change should begin from the witnessing lives of those who exercise leadership in the Church. More than a teaching Pope, he is a witnessing Pope. Pope Francis and his actions challenge the Church leaders all over the world to follow Jesus of Nazareth. Will they respond to his challenge or condemn him as a heretic?


(Published on 13th January 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 03)