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March 14, 2013
Column #1,646
Pope Francis – Breath of Fresh Air
By Mike McManus

In his first moments as Pope Francis, everyone could see his humility.

“Bona sera,” (“Good evening.”) he said greeting the crowd. He prayed for his predecessor, Benedict XVI. He led the crowd in the three traditional Catholic prayers: “Our Father,” “Hail Mary,” and “Glory Be.”

Then surprisingly he asked the huge crowd of hundreds of thousands, and millions around the globe: “for a favor. Before I give the bishop’s blessing, I ask that you ask the Lord to bless me, your bishop. Pray in silence for me.” He then bowed deeply.

My wife asserted, “I will pray for him.”

He stood clad in a simple white cassock, unlike his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who wore gold embroidered vestments when introduced as pope.

He chose Francis as his name after St. Francis of Assisi, which is “the most stunning choice,” commented John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. “There are cornerstone figures in Catholicism,” such as St. Francis. His name symbolizes “poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding the Catholic Church.

“The new pope is sending a signal that this will not be business as usual,” Allen asserted.

Interestingly, not one of the 265 previous popes chose Francis as his name.

Pope Francis is the first to be born in the Western Hemisphere. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (pronounced Ber-GOAL-io) is the son of Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires, Argentina. When he became a cardinal, he sold the cardinal’s palace and moved into a small apartment, and rode a streetcar to work, rather than travel by chauffeured limousine like his predecessors. He cooks his own meals.

As Cardinal Bergoglio, he was an articulate and passionate spokesman on many issues.

He told Latin American bishops in 2007, “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most, yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

Argentina became the first South American country to approve same sex marriage – but not without a stout defense of traditional marriage by the cardinal.

When a bill to redefine marriage was proposed, he asserted, “Let’s not be naïve. We’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

As the United States Supreme Court considers two cases involving same-sex marriage March 26, consider these words by the new pope:

“At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved on our hearts.”

Pope Francis is a humble man but he speaks with the authority of an Old Testament prophet. The Catholic Church – indeed the world – needs such a passionate advocate of righteousness.

In the last papal conclave when Benedict was elected, Cardinal Bergoglio was the runner up. Yet few predicted that he would be in the running this time because of his age, 76. However, he is two years younger than Benedict when he was elected in 2005.

Pope Francis “bridges the first world and the developing world in his own person,” writes Allen. “He’s a Latin American with Italian roots, who studied in Germany. As a Jesuit, he’s a member of a truly international religious community.”

He appeals across the divisions of the church – earning respect from both conservatives and liberals for his passionate advocacy for the poor and marriage and his personal modesty. He’s respected as a man of deep prayer and spiritual commitment.

And he has the strength of character to stand up to the corruption of Vatican finances, and the child abuse scandals.

He also wants “to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-reverential church,” he said recently. “If the church remains closed in on the itself, self-reverential, it gets old.”

What could be his most far-reaching reform?

Allowing priests the opportunity to marry, while encouraging the discipline of celibacy. That would attract tens of thousands of men to become priests, and give the church the priests needed to serve 1.2 billion of the world’s citizens, attracting back many “fallen away” Catholics.

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