Tonawanda News

September 25, 2013

For the Vatican, pope and change

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A previously unknown man rises through the ranks of a hostile political environment upending more polished, conventional figures in a meteoric rise to power. He’s met at every turn by adoring crowds sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands in capitals across the world. A new generation is eager to hear his message.

He’s tasked with turning around an image of a house in disorder, a once revered global brand that’s been besieged by scandal, corruption and petty infighting. 

I’m talking, of course, about Pope Francis.

I don’t know why it never occurred to me before last week but Pope Francis and President Barack Obama share the same compelling narrative.

Call Francis’ version Pope and Change.

Last week, Francis made headlines for his declaration that the Catholic church should free itself from the “small-minded rules” that have come to define it in a 21st century where trust is harder earned and even harder kept. The new world order values individualism at a time when the Catholic church is trying to sell a message of communal faith in a higher power — while only now coming to grips with a sexual abuse scandal that’s spanned the globe and turned even the most faithful into skeptics.

At this early stage in his tenure, it would appear fate — or, if you choose, faith — has deigned to find the right messenger, a humble man who would, if possible, win every convert himself one at a time rather than retreat behind the Vatican’s holy facade and issue directives from on high.

American audiences are no doubt impressed by the tidbits about Francis riding the bus, carrying his own luggage, paying his own bills and taking up residence in a modest flat in the Vatican hotel rather than the papal palace. Personally, I find it refreshing.

He’s the kind of pope you’d want to have a beer with.

Like Obama, Francis personifies the kind of moral change his followers were craving.

He’s a break from the longstanding image of a pope as doctrinaire-in-chief, sitting on a throne somewhere silently — and sometimes not so silently — judging us as sinners. People are rarely evil and we know that. Rather, most of us doing what we have to do to get through the day and if that guy in the funny hat doesn’t like it, well, who died and made him pope?

I’m not a Catholic but it’s heartening nonetheless to view our world’s single most visible messenger of a higher power as something other than, to borrow Francis’ term, small-minded.

As with Obama, for Francis, the devil is in the details. Rhetoric can only take you so far. Actions are what count.

I don’t expect some granola-eating liberal revision of centuries of church doctrine. I realize I’m still going to be on the other side of social issues — all of them, I think — than Francis.  I highly doubt Francis — or any pope in my lifetime, for that matter — will be a force for change on abortion rights, gay rights or access to contraception.

Differences aside, I greatly respect someone forsaking all the trappings of wealth and power. It’s an impressive and humble commitment to God.

For too long, the Roman Catholic Church, as an institution, has presented itself as nearly the opposite of everything I find holy. Religion and faith aren’t about messianic golden statues in towering cathedrals or a brow-beating, guilt-driven dogma. It was impossible for me to respect an institution whose self-proclaimed mission is preaching a gospel of morality and justice while simultaneously raping little children and covering it up.

Credit Francis for seeing this plainly and encouraging those in his charge to return to a truer, more righteous path. Like when Obama bounded onto the world stage, the world watches, enthralled at the notion of a dynamic new leader who will chart a course toward peace and righteousness.

Of course, if we’ve learned anything, change isn’t so easily realized.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.