What’s the big deal about the Pope?

What’s the big deal about the Pope? People talk about the guy like he’s managed to single-handedly abolish poverty, prevent a third world war0 and reunite the original Guns N’ Roses lineup all within his two year career. Sure, his papacy has introduced some “progressive” shakeups in the Catholic church, the most apparent of which are the way he dresses, and how he tackles the hard-to-grasp issues like “the state of Catholic theology in emergent modern societies” and “women”. But what’s he really done besides making a few noteworthy fashion statements and uttering some common sense platitudes about peace and love? Give me a break: Ringo Starr could be running things better at the Vatican if those are the criteria for a good Pope.

But perhaps I go too far. Pope Francis was and still is, after all, a welcome change from his predecessor (Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars). Admittedly, I can’t even pretend to layman status when it comes to talking about Catholicism, so maybe we should tread lightly here. So what is Pope Francis, and why all the fuss? Is he really the hip, young face of Catholicism we all want him to be? Or is he the same traditional conservatism hidden under a different, noticeably smaller and humbler hat? Maybe it’s both. The fact remains that, at the end of the day, the Pope is what he is: the Pope, i.e., the guy responsible for a 2,000-year-old organization with a past so ugly and unsellable it makes Jian Ghomeshi’s attorneys look like they have an easy job ahead of them.

The point I wish to make certainly isn’t that we should call down Francis as a reactionary in disguise, nor is it that Catholics are safe to rejoice in the coolness (and spryness) of their fun and oh-so-quirky figurehead. Rather, I think it would simply be prudent to ask ourselves: to what extent does it even matter? To those who say he’s more of the same old Catholic church we all know and, well, have feelings about one way or another: the guy’s in charge of an institution that has accomplishments on its resume that range from the Spanish Inquisition to touching boys inappropriately. Give him a break if he seems a bit unprogressive, he’s working with what he’s got. Accordingly, to those who praise him as the Bishop of Rome Superstar (I’m looking at you, Time Person of the Year selection committee): calm down. He’s a nice old man with some things to say about Jesus. Think of him less like Jimi Hendrix meets Gandhi, and more like Bono meets that friendly elderly neighbour who makes good squares and sometimes says questionable things about the Jews.

Far be it for me to pontificate about the character of the pontifex. All I’m saying is that it’s complicated one way or the other, and both his extreme supporters and extreme detractors are likely to oversimplify and misjudge his doings and misdoings as he does his best to do whatever it is that the Pope does. Does it even really matter?

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