This church wasn’t built for surprises.
Catholicism under John Paul II and Benedict XVI was designed in a spirit of certainty, with a top-down management style that treasured obedience and orthodoxy as the best expressions of a religion grounded in truths passed directly from God.
And then came Francis – a.k.a. Superpope, as depicted in a Roman street-art tribute that became the hit of the Vatican’s suddenly trendy Twitter feed.
All bets are off in a faith that until a year ago thought it knew exactly where it was heading – while glossing over glaring problems such as sex abuse, financial scandal, institutional in-fighting and alienation among the rank and file. A hierarchy that once shrugged off the challenges of modernity by imposing tighter rules and regulations is being led by a pop-culture superhero who refuses the role of judge. An organization that once presented its leader as the embodiment of sanctified supremacy now defers to the first pope to emerge from the fiercely independent, eternally questioning Jesuit order – a man of the streets who says he’s a sinner, who revels in the messiness of humanity like a rocker being tossed through a mosh pit. No wonder he made the cover of Rolling Stone.
But is his promise of change for real, or will his strong talk be diluted into tepid deeds, as skeptics already fear?
The pioneering Francis is completely at ease in a crowd, agreeing to pose for people’s selfies like they’re the ones doing him a favour, comfortable in the mortal skin that has cast off Rome’s extravagance in favour of simple white garments – a pope who spreads happiness just by freeing himself from the burdens and trappings of an office that for decades sucked the fun out of faith. He’s the servant of God at ground level: When asked about his stance on homosexuals, as good a test as any of the traditional Catholic need to deny and denounce the fluctuations of modernity, he famously answered, “Who am I to judge?”
In a church that has resolutely turned away from the nagging imperfections of the world, this makes him a revolutionary.
“It just feels like he’s brought a sense of urgency,” says 25-year-old Karen Keays as she nurses her young son Simon in a back pew of St. Patrick’s church in downtown Toronto. “This is the first time I’ve felt excited about the future of the church, and the main reason is because we have a pope who doesn’t separate himself from everyone else.”
That excitement extends well beyond the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world to include anyone looking for a more joyful message of hope and possibility than our glum, judgmental politicians are normally inclined to offer. In an Angus Reid poll this week, 67 per cent of Canadian respondents said they feel Francis is having a positive impact on his church.
In a belt-tightening world where debt reduction passes for moral leadership, where materialism has become an honourable life goal, Francis is a style icon for the disenchanted. He appeals to all those who reject the secular world’s prosperity gospel, who want to soothe the hurt and marginalized, who ache to reconcile their highest values with the troubled world they live in. And somehow, following the Pope’s new model, they also want to share the kind of pleasure that Francis clearly exudes in the midst of so much earthly pain.
It’s a fuzzy feeling of the kind often generated by modern paragons of self-improvement that doesn’t instantly translate into good works or even increased church attendance. And it has already come under criticism from tough-minded doubters.
Free-market economists say the Pope is the last person to give advice on solving poverty (Francis, hardly a promoter of trade and investment, attacks income inequality while asking us to see the poor not as a problem but as an inspiration). Traditional Catholics worry that he wants to turn the church into just another NGO, thus depleting the ancient faith of the sacred identity and spiritual purity they cherish.
The unexpected popularity of the 77-year-old pontiff, combined with his relentless message of personal change, has created a novel challenge for the Catholic leadership class: They’ve spent a good part of the past year trying to figure out how to reconcile their values with his style, and harness the power of the so-called Francis effect.