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My kind of pope |

Sunday Lifestyle

My kind of pope

- Paulynn Sicam - The Philippine Star

It is almost a year since Jorge Mario Bergolio was elected Pope, and I am still in thrall of him. I never thought I would be a faithful reader of Rome Reports, an Internet news service about what Pope Francis said and did today. Eagerly, I await his populist gestures and his homilies that I sometimes listen to in Italian, while reading the English text.

Since I was a child, the popes have been mostly pale old men dressed in velvet and ermine who sat on an elaborate throne in a splendid palace, and who communicated in a language that had to be deciphered for ordinary Catholics by theologians. The exception was John XXIII who was a welcome change from the ashen Pius XII, but he and the reforms he sought in Vatican II were short-lived. Then came another grim, conservative, bone-white Paul VI. John Paul II had plenty of charisma but was a conservative at heart. And I had difficulty with Benedict XVI even before he was elected pope.

A few years before he was elected, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he had issued a document defining the role of women that was so condescending, I wrote a column refuting it. At the same time, without having spoken to one another, three other women — another columnist, a politician and a nun — wrote their own critiques of his treatise. What would the Vatican authorities have done, if they even noticed our reactions, had they known that all four of us were products of the same convent school in Manila?

During the bad old days of martial law, Sr. Christine Tan, RGS was called to the Vatican and was admonished for the adversarial stance taken by the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Women of the Philippines (ARMSWP) that she headed, against the Marcos regime.  Fr. Benigno Mayo, SJ, who headed the men’s association, was likewise summoned. (For details, get a copy of Ceres Doyo’s book, You Can’t Interview God: Church Women and Men in the News, published by Anvil.)

Things would not get better. The marginalization of women in the Church, disturbing reports on cases against pedophile priests being swept under the rug, the corruption at the Vatican Bank and other horrors seemed to confirm my worst fears that the Holy Roman Catholic Church was holy no more. It was so alienating.

When Benedict resigned, I prayed to the Holy Spirit: Come on, this is the time to set things right. When Cardinal Bergolio, a Latino and a Jesuit, humbly asked the faithful to pray for him the night he was elected Pope, I had a feeling that the game had changed.

What’s not to love about Pope Francis? A regular Joe, he clearly felt uncomfortable in Rome. His style was too common, his speech too free, his heart too open, yet he was a breath of fresh air in the stifling stiffness of the Vatican. I like it that he retired the regal accoutrements of past popes, preferring his old black orthopaedic shoes, the white soutane, the simple guest house, the unadorned throne, and the ordinary car. I love it that he gets close to people, makes phone calls to strangers in need, how he literally touches them, freely giving hugs to the faithful who come to his weekly audiences.

When I hear him speak passionately about the gospel of love, compassion, forgiveness and service,   Francis is telling me that, warts and all, I belong and I am loved, not merely tolerated, by my Church.

I hang on to his pronouncements about issues that affect real people, like the economy (“…Faceless and lacking any truly human goal”), homosexuality (“Who am I to judge?”), the environment (“We do not have a good relationship with creation”),  money (“…has to serve, not rule”), vanity (“The worst sin that could be committed in the Church”) and redemption, famously saying that even atheists go to heaven.  He even put in a word for breastfeeding, which he encouraged lactating mothers to do during a mass baptism in the Sistine Chapel, if their babies were hungry. 

In dealing with the faithful, Francis persuades and does not judge, connects and does not isolate. But with the priests and bishops, he has been brutally frank about the need to improve their spirituality and change their attitudes and lifestyles. He has rattled the clergy with his admonitions about careerism and ostentatious lifestyles. How must the perfumed padres feel when the Pope issues public statements saying that as shepherds, they must go to their sheep, and even smell like them?

The reforms in the Vatican have been swift and courageous. Never have the Vatican’s finances been discussed so openly. The transparency is dazzling.

Reading On Heaven and Earth, a dialogue between Jorge Mario Bergolio who was then archbishop of Buenos Aires, and his friend Abraham Skorka, a Jewish Rabbi, on faith, family and religion, I realize that as early as 1995, Bergolio’s down-to-earth positions on the role of the Church were well-known. So the Cardinals who elected him in 2013 must have been aware of what he stood for. Whatever the College of Cardinals thought it was doing when it elected Cardinal Bergolio to the papacy, it was an inspired choice that could only have been dictated from above.

Never has a Pope spoken so plainly and directly to ordinary people that even atheists and fallen-away Catholics have taken notice. Never before have I hung onto every word coming from a Pontiff. 

There are times when I may not totally agree with what he says, but never before has a Pope communicated, with understanding and compassion, that it is okay to do so.

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