The greatest Pope

Pope Francis’ 10-day (Sept. 19-27, 2015) trip in the Americas—four days in Cuba and six days in the United States—reinforced what a billion Catholics and perhaps a few hundred million more non-Catholics should be thinking about by now and embrace—he is the greatest pope of the modern times.

Francis, aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 78, is the first pope from Latin America, the first pope from the Americas, the first non-European pope, the first Jesuit pope, and the first named after Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor, peasants and fishermen.

In a world with more than 1.23 billion Catholics, no pope in recent memory has wielded more power and influence over millions more people, many more world leaders, many more countries, and on many more issues than Pope Francis.   And that includes the six previous popes before him, two of whom, John XXIII and John Paul II, Francis canonized as saints.

What accounts for Pope Francis’ greatness?

One reason is humility. Francis disdains the trappings of power, and the pomp and circumstance that world leaders often succumb to.     The former club bouncer, janitor and chemist seems uncomfortable in the presence of powerful and pompous men, especially the politicians.   He is even more uneasy when showered with ceremonies and perks fit for kings, presidents, sheiks, sultans, high-profile diplomats and tycoons.

But his eyes light up, his mood brightens, and his smile breaks into almost a guffaw in the presence of children and women.   He weeps for victims of abuse and injustice, the poor, dispossessed. Often, he ends his prayers with a plea—“please pray for me.”

Francis’ father was Italian.   But he was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Dec. 17, 1936.   He became a priest at 33, the archbishop of Buenos Aires at 62, a cardinal at 65, and pope at 76. 

Francis’ humility and fidelity to Catholic doctrines endow him with tremendous moral authority. 

Less than one year after his election, Pope Francis was named  Time  magazine’s “Person of the Year” and received top media coverage around the world.   Francis easily eclipsed media coverage given Chinese leader Xi Jingping who was visiting the US at almost the same time he was making his pilgrimage.

His Twitter accounts in nine languages has more than 14 million followers. He is more widely re-tweeted than any other world leader. “That should count as a measure of greatness,” argues Rev. Larry Snyder, vice president for mission at the University of St.Thomas in Minnesota and a former president of Catholic Charities USA.

Father Snyder says: “I suspect that when people think of Pope Francis, the first things that come to mind are images burned into memory because of their messages’ sheer power: Pope Francis washing and kissing the foot of a young Muslim woman in a detention center; Francis fully embracing a man with extreme deformities; Francis playfully placing a mischievous young boy on the papal chair, as a doting grandfather might.”

“With images such as these, Pope Francis teaches us and challenges us. At the center of his teaching and concern are the poor. Has anyone tried to count the times that Francis has specifically referenced the poor? Has he ever spoken about social or economic realities without his point of reference—how the poor are faring? Without a doubt, he holds each and every one of them in his heart.”

Snyder says Pope Francis’ “most powerful teaching is by his actions. He shows us what we are to do by giving us an example. He goes where no pope has gone before and bids us to follow him. It is here that we see his vision of a church and a world fully engaged in the messiness of life bringing the message of God’s mercy to where it is needed most: the brokenness of human life,” explains Father Snyder. “A recurring theme is the responsibility of the economy to respond to the cries of the underprivileged who struggle to survive and of families to provide a future of hope and opportunity for their children.”

Father Snyder says “the overarching theme in Francis’ teaching is inclusion. Those deemed worthless or thrown away are held up as being of inestimable value. They are the poor. But they also are those who are mentally challenged, those who are physically disabled, those who are in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. Like the prophets of long ago, Pope Francis measures our society by how we treat the least among us.”

Snyder believes Francis “is changing the papacy and changing our world for the better. At the very least, he is the new patron saint of the poor and forgotten. And, to me, that is a sure measure of greatness.”

Having addressed the US Congress and the United Nations and drawn huge crowds, the Pope was asked by a journalist: “Do you feel more powerful?”

“I don’t know if I had success, no,” the Pope replied, in a talk with newsmen on board the return plane to Rome last week. “But I am afraid of myself. Why am I afraid of myself? I feel always weak in the sense of not having power and also, power is a fleeting thing, here today, gone tomorrow. It’s important if you can do good with power. And Jesus defined power, the true power is to serve, to do service, to do the most humble services. I must still make progress on this path of service because I feel that I don’t do everything I should do. That’s the sense I have of power.”

Is it good for the Church if the Pope is a star? 

The Pope must not be a star, he cautioned, blaming media for making him a rock star.  The right title, he said, is “servant of the servants of God.”

“It’s a little different from the stars. Stars are beautiful to look at. I like to look at them in the summer when the sky is clear. But the Pope must be, must be the servant of the servants of God. How many stars have we seen that go out and fall. It is a fleeting thing. On the other hand, being servant of the servants of God is something that doesn’t pass.”

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