The Bridge Builder

Published: January 1, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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His birth name was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, but that changed on March 13, 2013 when he became Pope Francis, a humble, Jesuit priest who took the bus to work when he was cardinal of Buenos Aires. He is the first Jesuit Pope and already, in this past year, he has made a difference in the lives of many.


According to Vatican journalist Robert Mickens, “He took the name Francis from Francis of Assisi, who is probably the most beloved saint you know among Catholics and especially non-Catholics. And you know had this great love for the poor, God’s creation, nature, peace. And what we’ve seen is that he lives very radically, very simply rather than some monarch prince or king or monarch pope.”

As reported on CBS 60 Minutes (Dec. 28) by Scott Pelley, Francis’ first decision was to eschew the traditional trappings of prestige and comfort of the papal apartment for a simple room in the Vatican hotel. And that would be but the beginning of many decisions that he would make to bring people together. Pontiff is Latin for “bridge-builder.”

Elisabetta Pique, a long time friend of Francis detailed more differences. “He asked specially that he didn’t want so much security. And he explained it very well. ‘If I go to visit you to your house, do I go with in a box, glass box? No. If I go to your house to visit you, I want to be with you, near you and I want to touch you.’ And he said, ‘I know that someone, there always can be a crazy one that would do something. But I prefer this craziness to have this risk that there would be a barrier between me and the people.’

“That’s physical courage,” Pique says, “in the tradition of the pope’s religious order, the Jesuits, who call themselves soldiers of God. These days, Jesuits are also known for intellectual courage–battling over ideas.”

Abraham Skorka is one of the pope’s oldest friends and a rabbi. When reporter Pelley asks Skorka why the Pope keeps telling everyone that he is a sinner, Skorka says “Because he’s showing a way. One of the great sins of the leaders throughout the world is that they used to appear before their people as perfect persons and perfect leaders. He’s teaching what a real leader must be.”

That leadership was apparent when he was a cardinal in Buenas Aires. “His ultimate faith is to shoe-leather evangelicalism,” Douglas Feiden wrote for the New York Daily News (Mar. 2013). “In fact, he often chides stay-at-home church leaders for ‘hypocrisy’ in forgetting Jesus bathed the feet of lepers and supped with prostitutes.

“ ‘Jesus teaches us another way,’ [Bergoglio] told Argentine priests last year. ‘Go out! Go out! Share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask! Become the Word in body as well as in spirit.’ ”

As pope, Francis not only goes out, but changes a lot of the traditions of a pope.

“He’s changing many things including the ancient ritual of washing feet on Holy Thursday as Jesus did with his disciples,” Skorka says. “With popes they’re almost always the feet of priests. But Francis cleansed and kissed teenagers in a criminal detention center. Two were women — unheard of — and two in the group were Muslim. When traditions like that wash away so easily, people begin to talk and there are some incredible Francis stories.”

“It is all consuming, Elisabetta Pique says. “At 78, he rises to every public audience: the blind, the deaf, the poor, the sick, the dying.”

Journalist Mickens says that when he took office, Francis “inherited a mess” in the Chruch. “He came in at a time when there was a great scandal. There were documents being leaked in the press about financial corruption, cronyism. There were even some sexual misconduct that was in these documents that were leaked. He had a very clear mandate from the cardinals that elected him. ‘Clean up the house.’ ”

And that’s just what Francis went about doing.

“He set up a council,” Mickens says, “a privy council of eight cardinals from around the world to advise him on reforming the Curia and governing the universal church. Really? Governing the universal church? Most people overlooked that they thought he was going to come in an clean up the Vatican and reform the Roman Curia instead what Francis has embarked upon is a reform of the governing structure of the Church.”

“And,” Pelley asks Mickens, “the Church that he dreams of looks like what?”

“A missionary church, a missionary church that shows the mercy of God, a church that’s not wagging its finger at people, not scolding people, but is inviting people, walking with people, befriending people, he uses the word synod, synod means walking with not just for the Church but it’s for all humanity. He’s called the Church a field hospital after a battle.”

When Gerald Lacroix, of Quebec City, received notice that he was selected by Francis to be a cardinal, the message Lacroix received from the pope was challenging: “Now you being named a cardinal Gerald is not a promotion, it’s not an honor and it’s not a decoration, it is a call to widen your spirit and a call to serve.”

“You are abundantly aware of the urgent concerns that many Catholics have about the sex abuse scandals, about financial scandals at the Vatican,” Pelley says. About the role of women in the church. What are we going to see in your estimation from this pope on those very important matters?”

In July of this year, Francis held a private mass for six victims of the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Church and apologized for the Church’s actions in concealing the scandal for decades.

“I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves.”

“This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused and it endangered other minors who were at risk,” he said. He went on to say that “all bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.”

One week before his talk, Francis called for “zero tolerance” on sexual abuse by clerics and a Vatican tribunal defrocked Polish Archbishop Jozef Wesolowsky after finding him guilty of abuse of minors.

On board a flight for yet another visit around the country, Francis startled many at an impromptu news conference when he said, “If someone is gay and searching for the Lord and has goodwill, then who am I to judge him?”

“The pope has written,” Lacroix points out, “that the Church has a false sense of security with – quote – ‘rules that make us harsh judges.’ He asked whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?”

“This upsets a lot of very conservative Catholics,” Mickens says, “because he’s the one supposed to judge, you know? What he has done is he’s opened up discussion in the Church. There had been no discussion on issues like birth control, about premarital sex, about divorced and remarried Catholics. None whatsoever.

“There’s been no discussion for the last probably 35 years on that. He’s getting them to speak about it over the next two years. The pope says, ‘If there’s opposition if there, people disagree, that’s not a problem. We want discussion.’ That’s something very, very new,” Mickens points out.

“But on a couple of old controversies, Francis has closed discussion. Opposition to abortion will remain firm. He says the right to life is linked to every other human right. And the priesthood will remain male.”

President Obama met with Francs earlier this year and Pelley asked about what inspired him about the pope.

“Well we spent a bulk of our conversation around issues of poverty and inequality,” Obama said, “themes that he has been talking about quite a bit. And obviously issues that I care about deeply. The very poor finding fewer and fewer ladders to get into the middle class. Youth unemployment high. You know, these are chronic problems. And, you know, what the pope’s able to do in a way that no politician can do is to shake people’s conscience and to shine a light on the problem. It’s our job to come up with policies to do something. What the pope can do is to help mobilize public opinion.

“But how practical is that?” Pelley asks. “Stalin once said of the power of the papacy, How many divisions does the pope have?”

“I’m a big believer in the power of conscience, the power of faith, the power of a message of hope,” the president said. “I think over time that’s what moves history. Tanks and divisions and dollars and cents, you know, all those things obviously make a difference. But ideas are the most powerful thing on Earth.”

“One man in one little tiny place in the center of the city of Rome can’t do everything,” Robert Mickens says, “And no one should expect him to. But he is there as an icon, as the captain of the ship, in a sense. And now it’s– you know, it’s up to the rest of the Church to get with this very challenging program. And any Christian that’s not challenged, whatever you are, right, left, center, conservative, progressive, if you’re not challenged by Pope Francis, as one of my colleagues recently said, you’re not listening.”

Listening to Mickens, I was reminded of an admonishment by Holocaust survivor Judith Meisel who, over the last several years, talks to students about her experience and reminds them. “Racism, bigotry…it’s still happening all over the world, and we have to constantly work at it to see that this does not happen here or anywhere. We cannot afford to say, ‘What can I do? – I’m only one person?’ One person can do a lot!”

Francis is doing a lot, and for that he is my choice for Person of the Year.


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