The Rock(star) of the Church

wikimedia pope francis

By Irene Chung

He’s TIME’s Person of the Year. He’s Esquire’s Best Dressed Man. His face is on the cover of Rolling Stone. And he’s the Holy Father to an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics. Pope Francis, a 78-year-old Buenos Aires bouncer turned priest, exudes a cosmopolitan cool.

The first two years of Francis’ papacy have seen an eight percent increase in Vatican tourism and a seven percent rise in the number of American Catholics who consider their faith “strong,” according to the 2014 General Social Survey, produced by National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The pontiff at the epicenter of the “Francis Effect” has defied church tradition to wash the feet of a Muslim woman, meet privately with a transgender man at the Vatican, and welcome divorced Catholics into the church. “The ‘Francis Effect’ is making the church more approachable and human,” said Katie Byrnes, assistant chaplain at Saint Thomas More.

The first Jesuit and Latin American pontiff, the pope has brought an unprecedented global perspective to the Vatican. Appointing 16 new cardinals in January 2014, nine of which are from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, he altered the composition of the church clergy to better represent the world. “He comes not from the center of the world, [that] being either the U.S. or Europe or Italy. He himself comes from the margins,” said Yale Divinity School Professor Janet Ruffing.

Whether he is waving from his bulletproof Popemobile or making waves in the cyber world, Pope Francis has made himself the most visible pontiff yet—especially on Twitter, where he speaks to more than 14 million followers through accounts in nine different languages. Pope Francis is the most frequently retweeted world leader, with his Spanish-language tweets averaging 10,000 retweets. And the first-ever papal selfie went viral on August 29, 2013.

But it’s more than just likes and selfies. Beneath the pope’s media frenzy and travel itinerary lies a tangible agenda for change. The first pope whose entire clerical life took place after the landmark Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, Pope Francis has sought to bring “fresh air” into the institution he leads. He has called for greater devolution of authority, writing in the Evangelii gaudium of 2013, an apostolic exhortation on church evangelization, that “excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” Mere weeks into his pontificate, Pope Francis formed a nine-cardinal advisory body, composed of representatives from all seven continents, to advise him on reforming the Roman Curia, an administrative unit that counsels the pope on church governance. And in February of 2014, Pope Francis established an agency to oversee financial planning within the Vatican, as part of his greater overhaul of the Holy See. “He is trying to create a larger base of decision-makers in the church,” said Ruffing.

As the principal voice for Catholics worldwide, Pope Francis has also been touting a more tolerant attitude on social issues over which the Church had previously taken a strict position. Just five words—“Who am I to judge?”—shook the world in 2013, when Pope Francis suggested that he was tolerant of gay priests serving in the Church. For those who previously had difficulty reconciling their identity with the Church’s more exclusionary positions, from the LGBTQ community to divorcees, Pope Francis is offering renewed hope.

“He’s being controversial because he is bringing people in. He is starting conversation. I think it will reintegrate the Church,” said Juan Pablo Gonzalez, an undergraduate student who attends Saint Thomas More.

Many feel that Pope Francis’ initiative is a key strategy towards greater acceptance within the church. “The two previous popes had stymied the official discussion [on homosexuality] so much that Pope Francis is officially taking the first step,” explained Francis DeBarnardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry in Maryland, a gay-positive Catholic ministry for advocacy and social justice. “He has not expressed any interest to change the teaching, but his attitude, his gesture, his statements have all called for more pastoral understanding and dialogue of LGBT people.”

Pope Francis has also been a prominent voice in the political arena, taking a stand on international issues from drug cartels in his home country of Argentina to what he considers to be the European Union’s outdated policies on immigration and the economy. Later this year, he will publish a highly anticipated encyclical in preparation for his September address to the United Nations.

At “Pope Francis and the Environment,” a panel discussion at Yale in April, Mary Evelyn Tucker, a senior lecturer at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Divinity School, predicted that the encyclical will “speak to leaders and laity in many religious traditions. It will ignite a groundswell of concern for addressing these challenges in terms of both science and religion, ecology and ethics.”

But some are less optimistic about Francis’ progressive touch. Fundamentalists and conservatives claim that the Pope is distorting basic teachings of the church, while others argue that his sound bites and 140-character tweets may create a sensation but not tangible change. Furthermore, they point to seemingly contradictory and derogatory statements on issues like abortion and euthanasia, which Pope Francis has called “a sin against God.”

“The church does not condone same-sex relationships. The hope is that you are brought into the church, and you will gradually come to change your life to come into accord with church teaching,” said Jamie Manson, an openly-lesbian columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.

“When the Pope says he wants to be merciful to gays and lesbians, that suggests that we are sinning and we need to be treated with mercy. I don’t want to be treated with mercy. I want to be treated with equality and justice.”

In response to such charges, the pontiff’s advocates argue that Francis has already created internal bureaucratic change, which is setting the stage for attitude shifts and renewed policies in the church. “You have to remember that the Vatican is the oldest bureaucracy in the west. Change doesn’t come easily,” said Ruffing. With the possible exception of Pope John XXXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, she added, Pope Francis has done more to create progress than any of his predecessors.

Perhaps Pope Francis will catalyze a cultural reform that will translate gradually into institutional change. While the pontiff has alluded to the potentially short term of his papacy—perhaps only four or five years—he has already set a new attitudinal trajectory to propel the Catholic Church into the contemporary world. Understanding that cultural change precedes bureaucratic change, Pope Francis is renewing church conversations, one issue at a time.

Irene Chung ’17 is a Political Science major in Branford College. Contact her at

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).