By Tim O'Shea
In the months following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the subsequent appointment of his successor, Jorge Bergoglio, or as he is now known, Pope Francis, Catholics have watched as he has taken dramatic turns on not just hot – button issues, but on the flagship beliefs of the Catholic Church. Within the first week of his new position, he made choices that starkly contrasted with his predecessor: He elected to stay in his small apartment rather than the lavish Papal Apartment, he rejected some of the more ornate papal dress such as the red shoes and the golden ring, left the Vatican alone to visit a sick friend, and told various high ranking priests to avoid his introduction ceremony and to donate the money they would’ve used for the trip to charity instead.
Even his car reflects the new Pontiff’s philosophy. Rather than continue to use the Mercedes and BMWs of Benedict, Francis requested a Ford Focus for his transportation. And in September, he chose an even more modest car, a 1984 Renault 4 with 190,000 miles. The car was a gift from a Northern Italian priest, and Francis used it as an opportunity to tell priests the world over to reject material wealth.
But modesty isn’t the only new aspect of the head of the church. He’s been both praised and assailed for his more socially liberal statements, such as when he reached out to the atheists of the world in furthering world peace on Christmas, or when he published an article where he asked atheists to follow their consciences and God’s love would find them. This strikes a sharp contrast with Benedict, who assaulted secularism and atheism as causing a vast undermining of society, adding that the last group to seek to eradicate God was the Nazis. Moreover, where Benedict decried homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil”, Pope Francis stated that a person’s sexuality is insignificant compared to their love of God and compassion.
While it’s easy to write off each of these small statements as isolated incidents rather than earth – shattering revolutions, one can’t deny the new trend of love, compassion, and inclusion. Catholicism has found itself at a critical crossroads with the modern world, a crossroads encountered by many of the world’s major religions. Because of new social conditions such as acceptance of new social norms or time demands that detract from worship, religions are losing practitioners in frightening numbers. There are only two options to survive. First, update their views and practices to demand less attention or time from their followers, sacrificing tradition in the name of saving their relevance. Or second, stick to their guns and lose followers, while staying true to their original beliefs. The transition in Catholicism demonstrated a textbook – example shift from the latter to the former, but the mix of philosophies within the Cardinals means that the next Pope could easily shift the balance back, or perhaps even go further than Francis.
Whether seen as a shift in public opinion or a strategy to retain churchgoers, it’s important to remember the essence of Francis’ philosophy and what he is bringing with him to the Vatican. His namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was a wealthy man who threw it all away in an attempt to become closer to God and his fellow man. Francis is trying to distance material possessions from happiness by setting an example, and every new social statement is made in an attempt to only expand the Church’s doctrine of unconditional love and acceptance. And in an age of conflict and hate – mongering, a message of love might be something we can all learn from.