Pope Francis effect: Christians should not fear change

Critics of Pope Francis call him a liberal, a moderniser and a reformer. But those who object to the direction of the Catholic Church are forgetting there was one person who did all these things and more, a very long time ago, and his name was Jesus Christ, writes Clare George-Hilley

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The people’s Pope: but Francis isn’t a revolutionary
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Clare George-Hilley
On 26 December 2014 10:51

The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to become Pope in 2013 was symbolic for a number of reasons, not at least ability to breathe new life into the Catholic Church and transform its role in the world.

As he assumed office under the name of Pope Francis, the world began to learn more about this humble and inspiring man, who was previously archbishop in Beunos Aires. We discovered that despite his grand office, he preferred to take the bus instead of a chauffer driven car when travelling to some of the poorest areas to hold mass and swapped his entitlement of a luxurious residence for a small flat.

His time as Pope has been marked with themes of love, reconciliation, humility and a less-doctrinal tone of papacy. Here was a Pope who washed the feat of the disabled and the sick during Easter time, a Pope who travelled South Korea in a compact Kia car, and a Pope who embraced and blessed Vinicio Riva, a disfigured man who had been shunned for his deformity all his life.

Critics of Pope Francis call him a liberal, a moderniser and a reformer, the same words often used to define Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But those who object to the direction of the Catholic Church are forgetting there was one person who did all these things and more, a very long time ago, and his name was Jesus Christ.

It was Jesus that taught us to love our neighbours and our enemies, rejecting the eye for an eye approach and instead embracing forgiveness. It was Jesus who preached mercy and compassion to prevent the stoning of a sinful woman, "let him who is without sin, cast the first stone."

We now have a Pope who has captured the imagination of the world and millions of people who never felt Catholicism was relevant to them. Pope Francis has achieved this not through abandoning and distorting the Christian faith, but through refocussing on the issues that should be a priority for Catholics around the world.

Is it not the case that tackling poverty, supporting the sick and vulnerable and giving hope should be prioritised against condemnation of gay people and ethical questions over contraception?

Those that disagree should spend some time reading The New Testament again, where they will remember distinct parallels between the way Jesus led by example through forgiveness, and see that Pope Francis is now doing the same.

The Catholic Church is at its strongest for decades not because it has rubbished its doctrine but because this doctrine has been refocused on the true priorities that it should have concentrated on in previous years.

As a Catholic, I believe that my Pope should play an active role in shaping the agenda not just for our faith but for others in the world, including those of other religions or none. It’s not so much about changing the rules about what Catholics believe in, but ensuring that those rules remain relevant, underpin faith in the modern world and are reflective of the teachings we know so well.

He’s been called ‘the people’s pope’ because of his humility, but I believe Pope Francis is so much more than that. His agenda will worry the minority, whilst the forward-looking majority, including those who previously felt detached from Catholicism will begin to feel its warmth again.

Catholics should not fear change, our only fear should be that we forget that mercy and compassion should come before condemnation and criticism.

It’s time to recognise that actually the Pope Francis effect isn’t something new and undiscovered. It is an approach that runs through the heart of Christianity and was established and practiced by Jesus Christ.

Understand that and you’ll recognise why Christianity will continue to play a positive role in the world, doing what it should be doing, giving hope, care and comfort to those who need it most.

Clare George-Hilley is Director of Communities and Social Justice, Parliament Street Research Council. She is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator @ClareHilley

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