COMMENTARY | A 2014 CBS News poll revealed that more Catholics now feel the Catholic Church is in touch with its followers than those who believe it is out of touch. While not a clear majority, the 48 percent to 43 percent vote marks the first time that more Catholics believe the Church is in touch with its followers in the history of the CBS News poll. Clearly, the first year of Pope Francis’ papacy had a great deal of influence on the outcome of this poll.
As a lifelong Roman Catholic, I lived through the papacy of another popular pontiff, Pope John Paul II. However, nothing I have seen in my 42 years on this planet approaches the “rock star” popularity of Pope Francis. I mean that literally, as Francis is the only pope in history to grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Is it hyperbole to already declare Francis as the greatest pope in history?
Many Catholics would counter that Peter, the first pope, must be the greatest in history. Although Peter famously denied being a follower of Jesus three times in one night, he is responsible for the early growth of the Catholic Church. He even died a martyr, being crucified upside-down. Even Catholics who acknowledge Francis’ popularity would have a difficult time ranking him ahead of Peter.
However, Pope Francis stands out as a great pope in light of the many flawed popes who occupied the papacy throughout the Middle Ages. Historians and those who oppose the Catholic Church seem to relish the opportunity to harp on the Inquisition, Crusades, indulgences, and corrupt popes of that era. What they fail to point out is the context of the time in history when these popes reigned and the fact that popes, like all people, commit sins.
But even in recent times, the Catholic Church has been harmed by other incidents, such as the Vatican Bank scandal and sexual abuse cases. Despite the negative press that the Catholic Church has received throughout history, Pope Francis has managed to win over Catholics, other Christians, and even many atheists. It is easy to see why some people may be ready to declare Francis as one of the greatest popes in history.
Pope Francis’ popularity is a result of both style and substance. Immediately after ascending to the papacy, Francis surprised many people by refusing many of the luxuries afforded to those of his position. He has also shown showed little tolerance for other Catholic Church leaders who were too comfortable with this kind of lifestyle. Francis has also demonstrated a remarkable ability to both stay true to core Catholic teachings, while also showing a tolerance and respect for those who have different viewpoints.
Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope in history and a core belief of Ignatian spirituality is the importance of service because God is present in everyone and in all things. Clearly, Francis personifies this teaching.
It is certainly too soon, and perhaps even inappropriate, to consider the greatness of Pope Francis with respect to other popes in history. However, I can easily see why Francis is so popular at this point in history.