I remember when I was a regular church goer, how there a lot of inside jokes about Catholics that flew around. Many of us thought it was both sacrilegious and kind of funny that so many people would be willing to blindly follow an old White guy in a big hat. This was not only our perception of the Catholic Church, but others outside of Protestant Christianity as well. And there is a long history of antagonism and conflict that reinforced this idea.
It seems however that all that has changed literally overnight. As has already been mentioned, there is a new pope to take over where Benedict XVI left off, and he has already been a major shock to much of the world over. Formerly known as Argentine Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis I took the formal world of Catholicism by surprise when he paid for his own hotel fee, and went into the crowd to greet people. Francis’ first impression is that if a humble man who seems himself as more of a servant than ruler or government official.
So why is he such a big shot in the arm to the near-two thousand year old institution? After all, John Paul, whom Benedict XVI had succeeded, was also known for his humility. The difference is in his theology. Catholicism is long associated with dogmatism and guarding tradition. This devotion has caused friction with many of its members who lived in areas of high poverty and suffering; particularly Latin America.
During the latter half of the last century, the continent was the scene of bloody revolutions, political corruption, and a poverty level that was a stark contrast with even the poorest places here in North America. The Catholic bishops who lived there during this time bore much of the burden, as many average and loyal Catholics often turned to them for moral and spiritual support.
However, there were many people who wanted more than just platitudes and prayers. These fighters and revolutionaries, many of them Communists, began seeing the Catholic establishment as supporting the massacres and corruption through its silence and lack of direct action. Many Latin priests and bishops took this to heart, some even taking up arms, and a new theology was created; Liberation theology.
Unlike Catholic and even much of Protestant theology, that stressed eternal salvation over the woes of the world, liberation theology went the opposite direction. Its followers pushed hard for more direct involvement in the affairs of the world, particularly the poor and the suffering. Because of this focus, many practitioners of this theology try to live humble lives, setting an example to others, while also trying to copy the lifestyle of Jesus.
This is the world that Pope Francis I comes from and what he says he hopes to bring to the Catholic mainstream. Many people are saying the days of the old court Catholicism are now gone. If so, that would be interesting to see, Vatican without all of its gold and pomp. It would probably be its most massive change since Protestantism began on the rise in 1518.
What would be more interesting to see though is how the rest of the world reacts to this liberation pope. If he does indeed bring more of a spiritual focus to the Catholic Church, a focus rooted in Jesus Christ, how will the secular and practical world receive that? These are questions that we will see answered in the coming years.