The enthusiasm we have seen for Pope Francis over the last year is exceptional. Polls show that among American Catholics he has a 90% approval rating. He has garnered more than 12 million Twitter followers and even broke a Rolling Stones (yes, the rock band!) record by drawing more than three million people to an event in Rio de Janeiro. Our new pope is a media icon and “The Francis Effect” is commanding the attention of not only Catholics, but the global community. According to John Allen Jr., it is “take-it-to-the-bank fact” that politicians and celebrities would do just about anything to garner the pope’s poll numbers. There is good reason for this unprecedented attention; in Pope Francis we see the example of Jesus.
Our new pope is connecting with the greater community on the deepest level because he has a sincere commitment to serving the needs of the people rather than the politics of the Vatican. With his first papal act, Francis bowed to a cheering crowd and asked for the people to bless him. In doing so, he acknowledged the full humanity of every person as well as the necessity of community. His immediate rejection of the glamour of the papacy and ongoing efforts to walk with the disenfranchised has commanded the world’s attention. Pope Francis’ humility and commitment to social justice is Jesus-like. His willingness to engage the community, not to mention pose for a selfie here and there, demonstrates a ministry focused on the people.
Through his service, Pope Francis is responding to the call for a Church that is relevant and recognizes that the social justice mission of Catholicism must be applied within a 21st century context. His ongoing commitment to include persons of all traditions at the table acknowledges the value of each belief system and the need for interreligious dialogue. He has also attempted to acknowledge that women’s roles need to be expanded in the Church by calling for a “new theology of women.” Furthermore, with his statement, “who am I to judge?” Pope Francis has recognized that there should be acceptance for all forms of love.
Nonetheless, we must note that although Pope Francis’ commitment to the mission of Christ is obvious, this does not mean that he should not be encouraged to recognize his blind spots. As pope, he is responsible for the leadership of a patriarchal and hierarchical institution that oppresses women and the LGBTQ community. The existing culture within the Vatican is inconsistent with Pope Francis’ mission and perpetuates intolerance. Clearly, the Vatican’s power impacts the global community. A commitment to dismantling an abusive culture within the Catholic Church will lead the way for change in a world that continues to oppress those at the margins.
Pope Francis is paving the way to FutureChurch. His commitment to social justice and its application in our world today demonstrates that he seeks a Church that responds to the needs of the people. With that said, Pope Francis has acknowledged the role of the community in the Church; and thus, we must embrace that role and continue to encourage dialogue around those issues that perpetuate the oppression of those standing at the margins. Change takes time; Pope Francis has begun a foundation for change and we must lend a hand to build upon it.
Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D., is Dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. She has authored multiple articles, the book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence (Routledge, 2014), and is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2014). Her WATER Teleconference, “In Search of Healing: Confronting Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence,” can be accessed here. Gina’s research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. She is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences, and in the national news circuit including appearances on Tavis Smiley and MSNBC. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the globe. She continues to be active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing for those who have encountered gender-based violence. Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.