There is a report on the BBC website stating that the Pope is highly popular in over half of 43 countries surveyed. Many commentators, who are not normally fans of Popes have written about how this new Pope is a welcome change for the better. For many Roman Catholics in the UK, who are by and large a pretty liberal bunch, it is a pleasure to be able to have a conversation with non Catholics about the Pope which doesn't involve a tiresome justification of the unjustifiable. As a member of that community, I personally can only be happy that we have a man in charge who seems genuinely concerned about dealing with issues of poverty and inequality. The fact that unlike many predecessors, he is not hung up one trying to tell people how to conducttheir sexual relationships, is perhaps the most telling sign that things have changed and changed for the better. That he has taken an active role in trying to resolve dangerous issues around the world, such as in Cuba again can only be seen as positive.
Whilst most of the citizens of Planet Earth are genuinely pleased when we see a religious leader doing his job properly, and whilst most of us afford respect to any Leader who is working for Peace, Justice and Equality, it seems that the feeling of goodwill towards Pope Francis is not universal. I'm not referring to the nutcase contingent of uber right US fundamentalists who believe that every Pope and probably every Catholic is a Satanist and an antichrist. This ragged bunch, who are probably the most damaging aspect of all of Christianity, cannot stand the fact that someone who falls foul of their rather warped ideology, could possibly be respected and seen as a force for good. I had a small insight into their mindset a while back when one engaged me in conversation on the street. They chose a bad day, when I was up for a row. The said numpty asked me if I had embraced Jesus Christ as my saviour. Generally I tell people it is none of their business. On this occasion, I made a mistake, I decided to engage in conversation. I said "Actually I am a Roman Catholic". I was immediately informed that the Pope was the AntiChrist and I would burn in hell unless I repented. I thought I'd try logic and reason so I said "Today I woke up at 6am, got the train from Mill Hill to Victoria, to spend the morning serving breakfast to the Homeless. Is that evil?" The response was "That is evil incarnate, you are trying to lure the poor homeless into your demonic religion". To this I responded that the rules of the Passage, where I volunteer, specifically ban us from trying to proseletise the clients. At this it was suggested that this was typical of the lies and subterfuge that the Prince of Liars, who was my inspiration, would come up with. At this point I thought I'd step off the back foot. So I said "Ok, it says in the bible, 'When you were hungry you gave me to eat, when I was thirsty you gave me to drink', how many homeless people have you fed today? All you are doing is making people think that peope of faith are uncaring nutcases. People like you are divisive and dangerous. You live a lie and you are like the religious elites Jesus denounced in the bible, caring only for practice of ritual and nothing for the poor and downtrodden". With that I strode off, in an even more foul mood than I'd started the conversation. But such people are not really a problem for Pope Francis. It wouldn't really matter what he did, they'd still hate him.
The big problem or Pope Francis is the fact is that it is becoming ever clearer that his own Vatican bureacracy don't like him. He gave them a severe dressing down, leaving them in no doubt as to his opinion of them. He listed 15 ailments of the government of the Catholic Church in his address to his senior staff. They were seemingly none too chuffed. Pope Francis did not work at the Vatican prior to his election as Pope. It seems to me that he's arrived and has been horrified by the extravagance of the organisation and the total disconnection from the billion followers across the world. His list of ailments highlights the fractuous, closed, inwards looking and bitchy nature of the organisation. Has any Pope in the last 1,000 years taken on his own inner circle?
Many of the elderly Cardinals who oppose the reforms and changes Pope Francis wants to bring about are completely out of touch with the daily lives of the people who live across the world and go to mass on a Sunday. Many have spent decades being mollycoddled in the Vatican, having their every need looked after, whilst being greeted with acclaim and reverence whenever they step out of the cocoon. No wonder they dislike alight being shone on their activities.
It seems to me that Pope Francis has struck a chord across the globe because he's identifed many of the issues which are of concern to all citizens, not just Catholics. He has realised that the Church has had its reputation dragged through the mud, alienating many previously loyal and devout Catholics, by covering up child abuse scandals. He has realised that the only way to save the organisation is to completely reform the broken machine that has allowed such scandals to be swept under the carpet. Along with these reforms, he's worked to shed the image of a sex obsessed, out of touch church full of repressed and slightly odd individuals. Pehaps the biggest change is that he simply seems like a normal person. When he moved to Rome, he rang up his old newsagent to cancel his delivery of papers.
Living in London, the vast majority of my friends are Non Catholics and it is clear that Francis has made an impression. Whilst I doubt any will be seeking to convert any time soon, it is clear that they see a genuine, decent man, trying to make a difference for the good. I'd suggest that for all people who care for their fellow citizens, it would be a good thing if Pope Francis has a successful time in office. There are several reasons for this.
1. The Pope has huge influence and if it can be used to resolve conflicts (such as US/Cuba) then this has to be good for us all.
2. The Pope has said that part of his mission is to help those suffering from poverty, injustice and inequality. He seems to be one of the few world figures talking this language. If he can spread this message to the national leaders, then we may see real change. In the UK, these groups have been major victims of the coalition austerity policies, whilst millionaires have had tax cuts.
3. The Pope is working for better interfaith relationships. It is completely ridiculous that in the year 2014 we are still murdering each other because we interpret a few chapters of a book in different ways. Only the most sick mind can ever believe that religious persection is a good thing. Sadly the sick minds are making the headlines and the innocent generally suffer.
4. If this Pope is derailed in his attempts to reform the Catholic Church, the Church will not go away (as the likes of Richard Dawkins would like). It will simply morph into a worse organisation, which rather than using its influence for good, will simply continue the navel gazing.
One of the conversations I've had most frequently with atheist friends is the one which says that the religion is a complete anachronism, totally out of date and having no place in the modern world. I don't subscribe to this view. I was discussing this with my 17 year old daughter, who has stopped regularly attending church. She summed it up pretty well. She said although she doesn't enjoy church or get anything out of it, it can only be good that people have a centre for the community, where they are constantly badgered to do good deeds, help other people, play an active role in the community and not be selfish. I sometimes fear that we are moving to a society where we sit insulated in our house, watching TV 24x7, getting all our shopping online, oblivious to the fact that 50% of the citizens of the planet live in total poverty. Until such time as there are no people who are oppressed, in poverty, suffering injustice and being marginalised, there is a job for a Pope to remind us of them. The only issue is whether we get a bloke who is actually up to the job. The sad truth is that whilst we appear to now have a bloke who is up to the job, there are a whole load of bureacrats in the Vatican, who have had their comfy little jobs turned on their heads. Lets hope that he holds sway. He may be the most hated Pope among the curia for 1,000 years, but for the rest of us, he is a breath of fresh air.