There’s a lot of buzz out of Vatican City lately. Pope Francis has made remarks that have gone beyond many of his often progressive-minded statements. “I ask if in this piecemeal Third World War that we are living through, are we not going toward a great world war for water?” he said at a recent conference.
“Global warming continues, due in part to human activity,” the pontiff said. “[The year] 2015 was the warmest year on record, and 2016 will likely be warmer still. This is leading to ever more severe droughts, floods, fires, and extreme weather events.”
Francis himself last year brought 12 Muslim refugees from Syria back with him to Rome.
He also added pointedly that climate change is a “sin against God.”
So the head of the Catholic Church, the head of billions of Catholics around the globe, has a left-leaning view of environmental politics, in case that wasn’t clear to anyone before this.
Last fall, Francis said, “Climate change … contributes to the heart-rending refugee crisis. The world’s poor, though least responsible for climate change, are the most vulnerable and already suffering its impact.”
In response to the growing refugee population in Europe, Francis himself last year brought 12 Muslim refugees from Syria back with him to Rome.
And Francis has said in the past, on a different subject: “We do not get dignity from power or money or culture. We get dignity from work.”
Despite all of his views — some would say because of them — the pope, through the power of his position, his humility, and his passionate love of God, has also been bringing more faithful back into the fold.
“Pope Francis is putting young professionals back in the pews,” noted Fr. Michael Sliney, a Catholic priest based in Westchester County, New York, who is also the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders in Manhattan. “Last week on Ash Wednesday, I was hearing confessions with three other priests at the Cathedral of Old St. Patrick’s in Soho, New York City, for nearly four hours,” he said. “We were all going nonstop, with nearly all of the penitents in their mid-to-late twenties.”
Fr. Sliney is convinced many of the pope’s messages during his papacy have resonated with millennials today.
“One of Pope Francis’ messages that connects deeply with this generation is his sincere concern for the poor, of ‘getting your hands dirty,’ and of not simply writing checks and attending fundraisers. In the words of Christ, ‘Whatever you do to the least of these brothers of mine, you do to me.’ This is a beautiful and tangible way to discover the ‘hidden’ presence of Christ in the marginalized and outcast of our society.”
Since the pope’s election to his post in 2013, he has made plenty of controversial remarks that may not sit well with many in the conservative Christian sphere. It is a widely held belief, for example, that Francis views contraception as a valid way to prevent pregnancy in some cases.
When questioned last year about the Zika virus — which can cause birth defects — Francis said, “Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
Francis also believes in the sanctity of human life, of course. He has said without question that abortion is a “crime” and an “absolute evil.”
The pope has also urged parents to have fewer children for a more sustainable world.
In matters of religion, Francis has suggested it is better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Catholic. “It is a scandal to say one thing and do another,” he said. “That is a double life.”
Francis elaborated: “A totally double life: ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this association and that one; but my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my workers a just wage, I exploit people, I am dirty in my business, I launder money …’ A double life,” Francis emphasized. “And so many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others.”
Fr. Sliney said this is a concern he hears “often from nonbelievers. Although there are many devout and authentic Catholics filling the pews on Sundays, we have our fair share of ‘zombie’ Catholics as well.” He added, “Pope Francis is challenging all of us to consider everyone as part of God’s family, and to actively share in his paternal concern for those who are most in need.”
Still, cardinals in the Catholic Church have clashed over the pope’s views.
An important question is whether any or all of Francis’ remarks have been in response to the new Trump administration in the United States and its views and agenda on a wide range of issues.
In a weekly Vatican address in February, for example, Francis said, “A person who thinks only about building walls wherever they may be and not building bridges is not Christian.”
President Donald Trump apparently has plans to visit Italy in May. It is unclear whether he will meet with Pope Francis while there. Francis did send a congratulatory message to Trump in January when he was inaugurated.
“Upon your inauguration as the 45th president of the United States of America, I offer you my cordial good wishes and the assurance of my prayers that Almighty God will grant you wisdom and strength in the exercise of your high office,” Francis told Trump. “Under your leadership, may America’s stature continue to be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast, and those in need,” Francis added.
During this Lenten season, it’s noteworthy that Pope Francis gave a powerful analogy for reading the Bible. “What would happen if we turned back when we forget it, if we opened it more times a day, if we read the message of God contained in the Bible the way we read messages on our cellphones?”
That’s a message that few people, no matter their political or cultural views, would almost certainly agree with and appreciate.