On March 13, after two days of deliberation, the Rome papal conclave released white smoke from the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new pope. The words “habemus papam” were pronounced with an air of hope for transformation, and since he assumed office, Francis, the elected Supreme Pontiff and first Latin American Bishop of Rome, has astonished Catholics, observers from all religious affiliations and non-believers alike.
Last week, in a conversation with the flamboyant and controversial AC Milan star Mario Balotelli, Pope Francis joked about his own reputation as a “rule-breaker,” referring to the headaches he has given to Vatican personnel regarding his challenging of certain rules of protocol. The Supreme Pontiff chose to live in a less spacious apartment in the papal guest house and gave up the armored “Popemobile,” arguing that such strict protection creates a barrier between a bishop and his people.
The Pope’s decisions do not appear to be a strategy applied strictly to attract more liberal youths to the faith or to create a good reputation as a pope. When Francis was elected Cardinal in 2001, he encouraged his followers not to travel to Rome to celebrate with him, but rather to donate the funds they would have used for the trip to the poor. If being a “rule-breaker” implies raising funds for the less fortunate and challenging the Church’s status quo, it appears that vocation for challenging the norms should be a requirement for ordination. Who’s with me?
Three weeks ago, on his flight back from World Youth Day, where the Pope’s final mass on Copacabana Beach gathered 3 million spectators (that is almost 15 times the number of people that attended the 1950 Brazil-Uruguay soccer football finale, the most crowded in history), Pope Francis surprised the world by saying that if a gay person has good will and is looking for the Lord, he has no right to judge them. Feel free to contrast these positive remarks with his predecessor Benedict XVI’s comments that homosexuals should give up their “tendencies” and look for a “correct way of living.”
Although Pope Francis had said homosexuality is a sin before his revolutionary statement, his words do mark a shift from the position held by the Catholic Church for a long period of time. In short, the Pope said that being gay and having faith are not mutually exclusive and that homosexuals are welcome into the Vatican-based faith. Such a “tendency,” as the Pope refers to it, should not result in marginalization of LGBTQ members of society, which Francis explicitly stated during his speech. Words can only do so much, but they can have a great impact in the attitude of many believers.
But white robes, just like people, are seldom pristine and flaw-free. At the same press conference held on the flight back from Brazil, the Pope made a conclusive observation about the future of women in the Church, which various news outlets buried under the Pope’s declaration on homosexuals and photoshopped images of the Bishop of Romehim holding rainbow flags.
In a confusing account of the “theology of womanhood,” Francis affirmed that while women should be not be restricted to motherhood and charity, the door for ordination of women is definitively closed. It appears that the Church does not know with certainty what role women “should” be allowed to play in the practical matters of the Catholic faith, an assumption the Pope supported in his speech.
Yet, amidst the confusion, the Pope said that women in the Church are more important than bishops and priests, just as Virgin Mary was more important than the Apostles. But if that’s true, why does the all-male higher authority of the Church have the final word on whether women can be ordained? Why can’t women be entrusted with delivering a sermon or baptizing newborns and converts? For a Pope who seemed very comfortable with including LGBTQ members in the Church, he did not show the same ease when dealing with the possibility of women being leaders in the faith.
In spite of the unclear definition of the “theology of womanhood,” the Argentinian Pontiff emanates an air of modernity. This has been well received by many members of the faith who had perceived the Church was having a hard time keeping up with the forward idiosyncrasy of 21st century Catholics.
Yet, six months after his election, it is uncertain whether Pope Francis’ words will result in concrete transformations within the Catholic Church that will allow us to cheerfully claim “habemus changeam!”
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