Norm Gibbons

On June 24, 2014 at 2.24 a.m. Vatican Time, when Pope Francis should have been asleep, he tweeted the world:

 “How I wish everyone had decent work! It is essential for human dignity.”

Of his 14 million tweeting followers, one out of the immediate 6459 replies to God’s official representative on Earth commented, “Go to bed Francis u party animal” – a humorous response, but also, a hint that his mission is unflagging.

140121145511-pope-money-quote-620xaSince taking up his post at the Vatican in March 2013, the pontiff has made income inequality a central pillar of his papacy. Francis has frequently admonished the wealthy, citing an Oxfam Report, which found that the world’s 85 richest people now own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the world’s population of 7.174 billion.

His advocacy for the poor has not gone unchallenged. Glenn Beck, an American conservative commentator, decried Time magazine’s decision to name Pope Francis, “Person of the Year,” due to Beck’s concern that he sounded like a “Marxist.” And Rush Limbaugh, the uber-American talk-show radio celebrity, launched an attack saying, “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.”

The Economist also took up the theme of papal Marxism. In response to a spontaneous remark by Pope Francis in a Barcelona interview, unaided by the ubiquitous teleprompter: “We are discarding an entire generation to maintain an economic system that can’t hold up any more, a system that to survive, must make war, as all great empires have done. But as a third world war can’t be waged, they make regional wars…they produce and sell weapons, and with this, the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies, the great world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money, are resolved…” the magazine suggested that in making the link between capitalism and war, “he seems to be taking an ultra-radical line: one that consciously or unconsciously follows Vladimir Lenin in his diagnosis of capitalism and imperialism as the main reason why world war broke out a century ago. There are plenty of counter-arguments one could offer.” Surprisingly, the pope took this communist branding label as a compliment: “I can only say that the communists have stolen our flag. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the center of the Gospel.”

Living up to his namesake

20140127-pope-x1800-1390859820According to Huffington Post, in order to get a first hand understanding of the plight of the poor, Pope Francis frequently disguises himself as a common priest and goes out onto the streets of Rome to meet with the homeless. His staggering popularity with Catholics and non-Catholics alike can be attributed in part to his disdain for opulence. The pope lives in a small Vatican apartment claiming he has no need for the palatial digs of his predecessors. Though chauffeured, he drives around in a second-hand Renault 4 and is quite comfortable making impromptu stops to engage with his followers. In discarding the bullet-proof, Mercedes Popemobile, calling it a “sardine can,” he joked, “At my age, I’ve got nothing to lose.” Pope Francis has been described as a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone else, a normal person.

Mainstream and alternate media have issued a flood of press releases about the changing role of the papacy. Following a green theme, the pope called on the world to respect creation and halt the destruction of South America’s rainforests. He released a blistering condemnation of organized crime accusing them of “adoring evil,” and went on to say, “Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as Mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.”

Pledging zero tolerance to sexual child abuse by priests, he met individually with six victims and he begged for forgiveness from those abused. He said, “I ask for the grace to weep, the grace for the Church to weep and make reparation for her sons and daughters who betrayed their mission, who abused innocent persons.” On gay rights, he modestly demurred, “Who am I to judge?”

To restore the reputation of the Vatican Bank – repeatedly accused of money laundering, fraud and immoral investments – he removed all but one cardinal from the financial oversight committee. In a move reminiscent of Jesus expelling moneychangers from the temple, Francis fired many of the Vatican bankers and the directors of the Church’s Financial Information Authority.

He has even rewritten traditional dogma. In a recent revelation, sounding more like a literary scholar than a defender of Catholic teachings, Pope Francis said: “Through humility, soul searching, and prayerful contemplation we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas. The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God. God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity. God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace. Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.”

Giovanni_Bellini_St_Francis_in_Ecstasy555Judging by his top down approach to Vatican reform, as well as a lead-by-example policy, one realizes that the choice of papal name anticipated the actions he would take. As Scott Onstott informs us on his website, Secrets in Plain Sight.com, “(Saint) Francis was a wealthy young man when he had an ecstatic vision of nature mysticism…. While homeless he had another vision where Jesus said to him three times, ‘Go and repair my house that is falling into ruin.” In about 1211, he returned to Assisi, rebuilt the tiny Porziuncola stone chapel and lived near by in a primitive hut. Francis later founded an order for a new humble priesthood, the “Franciscans,” the Order of Poor Clares for women, and became known as the patron saint of animals and the environment.

St. Peter’s Basilica is no stone chapel, but the moral decay over the centuries is finally surfacing. In keeping with St. Francis’ belief in a meaningful role for women in the church, Pope Francis recently appointed Sister Mary Malone, a Franciscan nun, the first female head of a pontifical university.

Is he genuine?

Many detractors call into question this breath of fresh air. They claim that there is an enormous disconnect between intention and action. Salon.com points out that we are not seeing the real McCoy; instead a masterly public relations program orchestrated by the Vatican’s PR man, formerly of Fox News. And in the last few weeks, the Vatican announced that the peer Lord Patten, retired from BBC, would become the pope’s newest media advisor, assigned to revamp the Vatican’s media presence and teach the pope better ways to utilize the internet.

Critics claim that his populist views are “smoke and mirrors,” that the pope is still the old-school conservative unable to compromise on birth control issues, abortion, sexism and homophobia. He has no intention of exposing the secret societies like Opus Dei, which some claim control the church. The reason for his election by the cardinals had more to do with the radical decline in filling the “collection plate” than a sincere desire to live and teach the gospels of Jesus Christ.

In a recent correspondence, Rex Weyler author of The Jesus Sayings about the authentic teachings of the Jewish peasant sage, and the centuries of corruption that followed – wonders, “Did the Vatican just find themselves in too deep a hole with the pedophilia and banking scandals, and therefore had no choice but to purge some of the bad blood? Is this a backlash against big-bankers in general? Does this reveal internal squabbles among the oligarchy? Did Ratzinger represent a wing of Euro-royalty and industry-bankers who are now getting purged by another faction of oligarchs?”

CNN just reported that the Vatican is turning to big-hitting Wall Street players for help as it tries to leave its scandal-tainted banking past behind. Pope Francis has hired veterans of Invesco, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank to complete an overhaul of the Vatican banking empire. Some might say that the foxes have been invited into the hen house.

Even his own clergy publicly challenge his ex-communication pronouncement to the Mafiosi. A church procession in the Calabrian town of Oppido Mamertina, considered a stronghold of the Ndrangheta crime syndicate, diverted from its normal route to pay tribute to a local Mafioso under house arrest for murder.

There has been no comprehensive action on rampant pedophilia inside the church. Are a promise and an apology to a few victims enough? Francis’s credibility will be enhanced if he actually takes steps to purge the estimated thousands of pedophile priests within the church, punish the perpetrators, and sanction the enablers, who allowed these pedophiles to remain in the system and harm so many – likely millions – of victims.

images-2A pervasive cynicism prevents us from accepting that good and honest deeds are still possible. We no longer believe that mega institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church are capable of meaningful change. In this world that so dearly needs saints, when we are presented with a promising candidate, our first response is to look for ulterior motives. We feel reason to doubt the simple message the pope brings to the papacy. In the closing passages of The Jesus Sayings, Rex Weyler commented, “We don’t need mythic superheroes; we need ordinary heroes who will witness the truth and speak up for those deprived of a voice.” Is Francis an ordinary hero, and earth-shaking reformer, or a means to clean up the public image of a scandal-ridden church?

Pope Francis is only 16 months into his mission. Like President Obama, will his charisma fade and all hope for change evaporate? Let’s see what happens.