Saturday, 12 October 2013

Pope Francis seeks Vatican reform (PO)

M D Nalapat
Friday, October 11, 2013 - Pope Francis has been hailed as the first “non-European” Pontiff of the Catholic Church the most majestic and powerful entity which commands the allegiance of hundreds of millions of the globe’s most productive citizens. However, the reality remains that he is of 100% Italian stock, the same ethnicity which gives forth more than eight out of ten Popes. It is only technically - in terms of the passport he carries - that he may be said to be “non-European”, although he has the legal right to claim Italian citizenship whenever he chooses. A millennium ago, the Catholic Church outstripped the world’s first Christian church, the Patriarchate of Antioch, in the number of its followers.

Indeed, since the days of the Roman emperor Constantine, it has never had to cede its primary position within the Christian pantheon to any other church. One of the reasons why Europe and North America are deaf to the travail being endured by Christians in Syria and indeed within West Asia in general may be because few believers in such regions accept the Pope in Rome as their spiritual leader. Many hail from the Orthodox churches of Greece and the Orient, with their different liturgies and modes of worship. Hence, there is hardly any public pressure on Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande to try and do something to prevent the armed groups in Syria and Libya from killing Christians and driving them out of their respective countries.

Because the Catholic Church is based in Rome, those of Italian origin have played a significant role in its leadership and evolution. Non-Europeans ( or those not of European ethnicity) figure hardly at all in the list of Saints of the Church. For example, almost all the saints are of European extraction, including the two former Popes who have been canonized by the Vatican recently. Certainly the people of Europe are civic-minded and have done immense good to the world. Certainly many have toiled a lifetime in the service of those less privileged than themselves. But it is difficult to believe that 99.5% of Saints come from a single ethnicity, leaving the immense bulk of humanity with only a negligible share in such an exalted list. Had Cardinal Ivan Deas of India or some of the great Cardinals of Asia and Africa - for example in Ghana or the Phillipines been made the Pope after the retirement of the previous incumbent, it could have been said not only technically but substantively that for the first time in its history, the majestic Catholic Church would be led by a non-European.

Pope Francis is as “non-European” as India’s all-powerful Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, who too is of Italian extraction, having been born in Orbassano, a picturesque town in the north of Italy, a beautiful country with a vibrant people Having said this, it must be admitted that Pope Francis has shown himself to be of an entirely different cut from his two immediate predecessors, both of whom sought to prevent the winds of change from blowing into the Vatican. The new Pontiff is a simple man who refuses to change his ways, and who has therefore declined to reside in the munificent style of his predecessors. Pope Francis has not forgotten that Jesus Christ chose for himself and his followers a life of poverty, and that it is said that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Paradise”.

The gap between Pontiff and People has been significantly reduced by Pope Francis, who shows by his words and his deeds that he genuinely cares about the poor. More importantly, he has refused to follow the example of condemning those whose lifestyles are different from the strict codes recommended by the Church. Even in matters as grave as love between people of the same sex, the Pope has correctly said that such behaviour is not for him to judge. The reality is that the Day of Judgment falls only on a single occasion, and not every week or everyday. And that only the Almighty is empowered to judge, not mere human beings who boast that they too have the power to judge and to condemn their fellows.

Across the globe, those who follow the Catholic Church have, on average, a much higher level of education and economic empowerment than the overwhelming bulk of humanity. Hence it is with surprise that such a length of time has elapsed before the Vatican has had the good fortune to have as the Pontiff an individual whose sights are firmly set on the 21st century rather than the 19th or even earlier epochs. The gentle and commonsensical touch brought to bear on complex theological issues by Pope Francis is a refreshing change from the inflexible conservatism of some of his predecessors. Those who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ need to internalize his forgiving nature, his acceptance of human frailties even within his closest followers, as for example his prediction that the Apostle Peter would deny him thrice “before the cock crows”. The world may not have forgiven Judas for betraying his master, but Jesus certainly did. The forgiving approach of Pope Francis is fully in sync with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Indeed, these teachings have been elucidated in the Holy Quran, where mercy, compassion and beneficence have been repeatedly mentioned as the qualities needed in a believer of the Word of God.

Coming back to the Catholic Church, for long there has been a growing disconnect between the Clergy and the Laity. Pope Francis bids fair to reduce that gap, if not to close it altogether. He has shown that the spirit of reform is alive at the very pinnacle of the Catholic Church.

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