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I have found, like many others, much to admire in Pope Francis. I believe that Francis can set an agenda that will affect change not only within the Christian world but in the larger world as well, where there are certainly many changes that need to be made.
One of the most important agenda items for Francis is his emphasis on caring for the poor. From the first moments of his papacy, Francis made a point to eschew many of the regal trappings of the papacy and, in doing so, made a powerful statement about his very real concern for the poor of the world.
Coming from South America, where he was not isolated from extreme poverty, his connection to the poor is as much experiential as it is theological. At the same time, Francis has demonstrated a corresponding level of discomfort with the wealth of the Church in the face of that poverty.
Living in more modest accommodations than his predecessors and taking other steps to simplify his lifestyle, Francis is sending more than just a symbolic gesture about tackling poverty; he seems intent on bringing the vast resources of the Church to bear on that poverty.
How Francis continues to balance his call to care for the poor from the midst of Vatican splendor will be interesting to observe. His presence in a place of wealth is a reminder that so many in the developed world live in their own places of wealth while countless millions struggle for the barest necessities of life every day.
He is correct to call attention to the growing divide between rich and poor, but words alone aren’t enough; his actions can, and hopefully will, set an example for the rest of us.
Francis is also making clear his intention that the church must move more in the direction of grace and away from the harsher dogmatism exemplified by his predecessor, Benedict. He has surprised many with his softer tone towards groups, gays and atheists among them, who in the past often found themselves on the receiving end of condemnation from the Vatican.
Rather than taking the “us versus them” mentality often presented by religious leaders, Francis recognizes that in the eyes of God, there are no “insiders” or “outsiders.” Every person is a child of God, and as such, every child is deeply loved.
Parental love doesn’t make distinctions between children, and neither does the love of God. To portray God in any other manner would be to distort his character.
Francis has also proven to be much more media savvy than Benedict, and he is using his media appeal to connect in a greater way to the everyday lives of not just Catholics, but all people. How often did we find Benedict on the front page of the paper or leading off the evening news? Not very often, and when we did, it was not always for reasons that were good news for the Vatican. Francis consistently grabs headlines, and he seems very aware of how those headlines not only shape the way people think of the Vatican, but of the church and the larger Christian world in general.
None of this means, certainly, that Francis will move forward without facing opposition. Already, more conservative elements within the church are expressing their dissatisfaction with his lack of speaking against abortion and gay marriage. These have been the issues of engagement by many of the leaders in American Catholicism in recent years, and they seem eager for a more outspoken advocate in the Vatican.
He must also face the growing pressure for a greater role in the church for women, specifically ordination. Francis has called for greater female participation in both the life and decision-making process of the Church, but he has drawn the line at ordination. His refusal to champion ordination for women already has brought disappointment to many American Catholics, and to many others throughout the West.
This is an issue that is not going away and will only intensify. Though Francis possesses great charm and charisma, those gifts won’t be enough to quell the dissident voices on this issue.
And this is where Francis will find his real test. Words are important, but to affect real and lasting change, there must be policy change as well. Only time will tell how far Francis is willing to go in changing policy and reinterpreting their attendant doctrinal underpinnings, but as one of his Protestant admirers, I prayerfully wish him the best.
Dave Charlton is pastor of First Christian Church. His column will appear every other week. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.