By Val G. Abelgas
Last week, from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia, we witnessed how a simple man from Argentina has singlehandedly brought the Roman Catholic Church into the 21stcentury and how millions of Catholics and even non-Catholics have responded to the positive changes he is bringing to the world’s biggest religion.
Pope Francis has caught the fascination and admiration of millions of people all over the world for his thoughts considered by many as radical and liberal, and he did not fail the Americans as he spoke his mind in various events in his first visit to the United States.
The Pope has been credited for the resurgence of the Roman Catholic Church as the world’s premier religion, bringing millions back into the fold and inspiring many young men to seek the seminary in the hope of becoming Catholic priests in the mold of Pope Francis.
In his speech before a joint session of Congress, the first pontiff to do so, Pope Francis called on US lawmakers to embrace immigrants, whom he called the “the stranger in our midst.”
Asking Congress “to respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal,” the Pope said: “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best as we can to their situation.”
The lawmakers greeted his speech with standing ovation, and the Republicans opted to hear him out. Turning to other topics that have divided the US Congress, Pope Francis alluded only in passing to the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion when he noted, to applause, “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” even as he advocated abolition of the death penalty, something that enjoys support from a number of lawmakers of both parties at the federal level. “This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.”
He also spoke out against fundamentalism of all kinds, while urging care in combating it. “A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms,” the Pope said.
In an earlier speech at the United Nations, the Pope condemned the craving for material gains and power, warning that greed is destroying the Earth’s resources and aggravating poverty.
“The ecological crisis and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity can threaten the very existence of the human species,” he said Francis.
To the consternation of Republicans who have vehemently opposed the recent nuclear deal initiated by President Barack Obama and reached by world powers with Iran, Pope Francis underscored an “urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons.” He praised the July agreement as “proof of the potential of political good will and of law, exercised with sincerity, patience and constancy.”
The Pope faced head-on the sex abuse scandal that has rocked American archdioceses, promising victims of child sex abuse to hold accountable those responsible for the scandal in the church, and delivering a powerful warning to American bishops accused of covering up for pedophile priests instead of reporting them to police.
“I regret this profoundly. God weeps… I commit to a careful oversight that youth are protected and that all responsible will be held accountable… Those who have survived this have become true heralds of mercy, humbly we owe each of them our gratitude for their great value as they have had to suffer terrible abuse, sexual abuse,” he said.
In welcoming the Pope, President Barack Obama credited the pontiff for setting a moral example that is “shaking us out of our complacency” with his reminders to care for the poor and the planet.
Indeed, the Pope has shaken all of us from complacency. He has also shaken the otherwise stagnant church into revisiting its old teachings. The “People’s Pope” has earned the admiration of many non-Catholics, who took to Whisper, a popular app that provides an anonymous platform for people to share their thoughts.
Here are some of the reasons given by non-Catholics why they admire Pope Francis:
• People love him for who he is, not just his religious beliefs.
• He eases the divide between religious and non-religious beings.
• He inspires people from a variety of backgrounds with different beliefs and values.
• He provides hope for those frustrated with certain aspects of the Catholic Church.
• He may not inspire religious beliefs in everyone, but he certainly proves himself as a leader.
• And he just might inspire religious beliefs in some.
• He strips away exterior issues and brings focus back to important matters at hand.
• He bridges the divide between religious values and human values.
• Because he accepts others, others accept him.
• He also weighs in on important social issues.
• He knows that the key to strength and acceptance is an open mind.
• And allowing love of humankind to spread acceptance and perspective.
• Because the world can be a happier, better place with a little extra acceptance.
• Pope Francis doesn’t fear change. He embraces it.
• By doing so, he changes the perspectives of others.
For years, I strayed away from the Catholic Church because I found the sermons irrelevant and priests treated its parishioners like they were children attending catechism classes. I have criticized the Church for its failure to adjust to the realities of the present time and for its failure to help the poor while preaching: “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” I have criticized priests and bishops who live in mansions and driven in SUVs while many of their parishioners wallow in hunger and poverty.
I have been back to Church on Sundays since Pope Francis became its leader. And I have noticed that priests, at least in my church at St. Linus, no longer speaks above people’s head but actually dialogs with the parishioners during Mass and actually allows community leaders and volunteers to speak before ending the Mass.
The Church still has a long way to go before becoming a truly people’s church and becoming the church of the poor as Pope Francis has envisioned. But the Pope offers hope and hope leads to faith.