Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?
When Pope Francis, who took over as the head of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013 and became the 266th Pope in Vatican City, was asked this question, he said “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, on 17 December 1936, to Italian immigrants, Pope Francis became the first Latin American pontiff to be elected after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI due to reasons of failing health.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina was ordained a priest in 1969 and after having served as the Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus between 1973 and 1979, he went on to become the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, and later became a cardinal in 2001. He chose the papal name Francis to honor St Francis of Assisi, one of the most respected figures in Catholic history, also known as the patron saint of animals, the environment, and Italy.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio received 77 votes from members of the papal conclave (the body that elects a new pope) and was thus endorsed by more than two-thirds of the 115 cardinal-electors. His election is a significant move towards an inclusive and global outlook for the Catholic Church. It is also a major move at acknowledging the Catholic orientation of the 480 million Catholics who call Latin America home. Brazil (126 million Catholics) and Mexico (96 million Catholics), two of the major Latin American nations, have the largest Catholic populations worldwide. While Protestantism and Evangelicalism have been on the rise in the region, it is expected that the election of Pope Francis is likely to woo many back into the fold.
According to reports from the Vatican (2013), there are about 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world. About 483 million (41.3%) of these live in Latin America, 277 million (23.7%) live in Europe, 177 million (15.2%) in Africa, 137 million (11.7%) in Asia, 85 million (7.3%) in North America and 9 million (0.8%) in Oceania.
According to the Pew Research Center’s “The Global Catholic population Report”, the following countries had the highest Catholic populations in the world (as of 2010) –
||Estimated Catholic Population
||Percentage of World Catholic Population
|Democratic Republic Of Congo
Among the earliest tasks undertaken by Pope Francis (in April 2013) was to select a nine-member permanent advisory group to help reform the Catholic Church and the Vatican bureaucracy – a major issue of criticism against the church. The group includes only one official currently serving in the Vatican. The remaining eight are cardinals, with at least one from each of the continents, other than Antarctica.
The members of the advisory group include Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello (Vatican), Cardinal George Pell (Australia), Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa (Chile), Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya (Democratic Republic of Congo), Cardinal Reinhard Marx (Germany), Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga (Honduras), Cardinal Oswald Gracias (India), and Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley(USA).
A reformation of the Vatican administration
A closer look at the Vatican administration has long been pending. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI tended towards centralizing more power within the Vatican but this move to elect a global advisory group has opened more communication channels and power sharing between the Vatican and other local churches. During Pope Benedict's time, the Vatican was rocked by a number of scandals including allegations of child sex abuse by priests and an expose of corruption in the higher echelons of the Vatican. Pope Francis, it seems, intends to get the advisory panel to "study a revision of the apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia Pastor Bonus". The Pastor Bonus, issued in 1988 by Pope John Paul II, is the backdrop against which the Holy See of the Vatican has been functioning. It contains the reforms undertaken in 1967 by Pope Paul VI. The current advisory group will soon be looking at a complete overhaul of the Pastor Bonus.
Shift in Focus
In September 2013, Pope Francis sent shockwaves through the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church at large, with the publication of an interview conducted by Rev. Antonio Spadaro, the editor of the Rome-based journal La Civilta Cattolica. Pope Francis said in his interview that the church had grown obsessed with abortion, gay marriages, and with contraception, and that dogma had been prioritized rather than love. The Pope’s interview seemingly contradicts dogmatic stands taken by predecessors (especially Pope Benedict XVI) and criticizes them for their rigid approach and obsession with “small-minded rules” which kept the faithful at arm’s length. The Vatican, however, explains that this is merely a prioritization of love over all other rules and practices by the current pope.
The Pope's focus on individuals and refreshingly down-to-earth attitude has made him immensely popular with many across the world. His calls to distraught members of the Catholic Church, and to ordinary people from across the world has earned him the nickname "the Cold Call Pope". This has delighted many but has also led to the perpetration of many hoaxes.
Support For the LGBT Community
Back in 2010, when the matter of same-sex marriage came up for legislation, Pope Francis had vehemently opposed the introduction of such a law, according to a report in TIME magazine. At the time, Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio had called same-sex marriages a “real and dire anthropological throwback”. His stance had prompted Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to compare the Church with “medieval times and the Inquisition.” Francis I's stand following the pontification, however, has been a lot more liberal than his earlier stance and that of earlier popes. Homosexuality had largely been regarded as “a strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil” by Benedict XVI.
On his way back from Brazil, his first trip abroad as the pope, Francis spoke to reporters and affirmed that priests would not be judged for their sexual orientation. While he did not condone acting on homosexual tendencies, he said that no person engaged in the pursuit of the divine should be judged on sexual orientation. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” – Pope Francis.
While his remarks started to bring cheer to the LGBT community, the Pope was quick to uphold traditional criticism of adoption by gay and lesbian couples, calling it discrimination against children. In September 2013, the Pope once again shocked the LGBT community by excommunicating Father Greg Reynolds of Melbourne, Australia for his open support of gay marriage and women's ordination. While the Vatican struggles to strike a fine balance between traditional Catholic values and the needs of a modern world, the LGBT community is keenly watching the stand Francis may take in days to come. The Pope, however, has yet to speak about homosexuality in a wider perspective, outside of specific contextual situations.
Abortion And Women’s Rights: the Vatican’s Stand
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods... But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” – Pope Francis
The pope’s words were considered an endorsement of abortion and contraception by many groups across the world. But just as NARAL, the leading pro-choice organization proceeded to thank the Pope for his stand on their Facebook page, the pontiff strongly condemned abortion at a gathering of Catholic gynecologists in September 2013 at Vatican. "Every unborn child, though unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of the Lord, who even before his birth, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world", he said.
In the matter of women’s ordination, however, the pontiff said that the doors to this had been closed by Pope John Paul II and that the Roman Catholic Church lacks “a deep theology of women”. This, however, does not marginalize the role of women. The pope refers to a church without women as an apostolic college without Mary.
From Papal Residence to Politics
From addressing the G20 leaders and leading the cause of peace in Syria, to refusing to live in the palatial papal residence, Pope Francis’ unorthodox ways have raised quite a few eyebrows. Upon being elected, Francis chose to eschew the newly renovated papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace. The pope’s traditional residence has over a dozen rooms done up in luxurious style, apart from the terrace for public appearances, and other staff quarters. He chose to stay in the Domus Santa Marthae, a guesthouse with about 130 rooms for the visitors to Vatican where he stayed during the papal conclave. The pontiff moved from a one room unit to a two-room unit, though, to make it convenient to receive visitors. He attends mass at the Domus Santa Marthae church each day and invites all the clergymen staying there to attend. Francis I seems committed to avoid pompous luxuries and remain dedicated to living Christian values by example.
Pope Francis has also shown a keen interest in promoting the cause of global peace. In early September he led a mass prayer vigil in St Peter's Square espousing the cause of peace in Syria. Over 70,000 people attended the vigil and during the course of his five-hour service the pope said that armed conflicts were a mockery of human history. The pontiff sent a letter championing peace to world leaders at the G-20 summit. The letter, though sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressed to all world leaders. In his letter Francis I said that “one-sided interests” had dominated the Syrian Crisis and that a diplomatic solution to the conflict was the only fitting end to the “senseless massacre”.
Breaking the Ties of Tradition
Pope Francis has not failed to capture the spotlight and media attention with his unique take on traditional rituals. Early into his papacy, in March 2013 he washed the feet of two women during the Maundy Thursday Mass at the Casal del Marmo juvenile prison outside Rome. One of the women was a Serbian Muslim. With this act, Pope Francis succeeded in drawing the criticism and ire of the traditionalists in the Catholic Church. Many believe that the reenactment of Jesus washing the feet of the 12 Apostles should have been confined to “chosen men” and not extended to women. The Pope told the prisoners, “This is a symbol, it is a sign. Washing your feet means I am at your service.” During Benedict XVI's tenure as the head of the Roman Church, he had initiated an eight-year campaign to reverse the modernization initiatives of the Second Vatican Council. He had approved the petition of Bishops to exclude the participation of women in the foot-washing ritual. Pope Francis’ non-conformist attitude has alarmed even the conservatives in the higher echelons of the Vatican. The more liberal Catholics, however, see the move as a positive step towards inclusiveness and draw parallels to John Paul II, who once performed washed the feet of 12 homeless men in St. John Lateran Basilica. Prior to his election as the Pope while still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he had washed and kissed the feet of women - including pregnant women and AIDS patients - in ritual ceremonies in Argentine prisons and hospitals.
The Pope’s Favorability Quotient
According to the results of a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center between September 4 and 8, 2013, 79% of the Catholics in the US have a favorable opinion of Pope Francis. In a similar poll conducted in March 2013, following Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio's election to the papacy, about 84% of American Catholics had returned a favorable vote. Overall 57% of the American populace gave the Pope a vote of approval in March 2013 and this remained almost constant with 58% Americans returning a favorable vote in September 2013. In March 2013, only 4% American Catholics had considered Pope Francis unfavorable while only 5% had voted unfavorably in September 2013. As of September 2013, about 17% Americans said that they had not heard about Pope Francis or did not know enough about him to form an opinion.
Pope Francis was elected to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, the first pontiff in the past 600 years to resign from the papacy. According to a New York Times/CBS poll over half of Americans believe that the Catholic Church is out of touch with the needs of the masses. Over 70% of Americans believed that the Holy See and Vatican administration did not properly handle the myriad sex scandals that emerged in recent times. Coming from such a difficult background, Pope Francis has mammoth challenges to overcome. Even by April 2013, the Bishop of Rome had won the hearts of many across the world. According to the results of a poll conducted by the Lavada Center in Moscow (April 2013), about 71% of Russians had expressed a hope for a papal visit.
“We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” – Pope Francis I
The world is watching as Pope Francis takes new steps to reform the Catholic Church and bring new members into its fold.