On March 13, 2013, 1.2 billion Catholics sat in front of their televisions waiting for the papal conclave to declare the next leader of the Catholic church.
They all watched as the smoke billowing from the conclave changed from black to white, signifying that the Cardinals had finally elected a new pope.
Many Americans were surprised to find that the crowd favorite, Boston’s own Sean O’Malley, was not elected.
Notwithstanding American sentiments, Catholics around the world were delighted to see Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, elected to assume the name Pope Francis I. He is the first Pope of Latin American descent, and considering that 40% of all Catholics reside in Latin America, a Latin American Pope is long overdue. In any case, this is a momentous shift from the European Popes of late, such as Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul.
On a separate note, Pope Francis’ approach to handling the current sex abuse scandals initially remained unclear. Many Catholics questioned how Pope Francis would address the scandals to the church and to the world.
The majority of Catholics have been very pleased with the work Pope Francis has done so far. The tone he set from the moment he was elected has changed the Church’s outlook and how millions of Catholics and non-Catholics perceive it. His first address as Pope to the captivated crowd at the
Vatican was one of humility and modesty. He first asked them to bless him before he gave them a blessing, and even his choice of all-white attire was humbling.
While on missions in Buenos Aires, he always took public transportation and lived a simple life. He chose a life of humility and continues this life- long commitment at the Vatican, the richest city on Earth.
He refuses to live in the opulent papal apartments, but rather in the guest house, and on one Holy Thursday, he washed the feet of women and non-Catholics, rather than have his priests do it for him.
These small actions may appear meager, but the message they send to the world is an incredibly positive one for Pope Francis and the entire Church.
Though the election of Pope Francis was surprising to most Americans, it was not that surprising to me. Since the sex abuse scandals were first uncovered in America in 2002, how would electing an American Pope help solve this sensitive issue? Wouldn’t it, on the contrary, cause more controversy? Whether the scandals happened in America or in Europe, the problem was the way the Church responded to them. Pope Benedict addressed the issues and sincerely apologized for the actions that were taken by the church members involved, but he never defrocked, or took ecclesiastical status away from, the perpetrators.
Then on April 5, 2013, Pope Francis addressed the sex scandals for the first time. He not only talked about the issue, but also stated his intention to take action, possibly even defrocking those clergy members involved. In this 21st century society, if the Church wants to rebuild itself, it needs to rebuild support from its followers who have perhaps lost faith in the institution. Pope Francis needs to put his foot down and assert that the Church has zero tolerance for scandal.
Non-Catholics and Catholics alike criticize the Church for the ongoing inappropriate behavior. This is understandable as it is a Church, and it is supposed to be led by God, who originally gave the apostle Peter control over his disciples. It is important to remember, however, that even though the Church is led by God, it is an institution ultimately led and followed by humans. It is easy for us all to understand that as humans, we make mistakes, but because the Catholic church is such an esteemed and media-covered establishment, we ridicule it for its mistakes.
The Church isn’t the only prestigious foundation that has had trouble with scandals recently. Our very own Deerfield Academy has suffered the disease of sex abuse. Peter Hindle, an esteemed faculty member, has caused a lot of bad press for Deerfield, but, with that said, one scandal or one event does not define an institution. The fact that Hindle abused Deerfield students is disturbing, yes, but it doesn’t erase the fact that Deerfield is a prestigious preparatory school. In the same way, the fact that there is sexual abuse within the Catholic Church doesn’t mean that the Church is fully corrupt and not trustworthy.
What separates these two situations is that when Deerfield found out about the abuse, Dr. Curtis removed Hindle’s name from all awards and grants. The problem with what the Church did is that it tried to cover up what happened, and it allowed the clergy involved to keep their positions. All institutions have crises, but it is how they respond to these crises that defines them.
Pope Francis has yet to speak on the Church’s stance on topics such as gay marriage and stem cell research, but he has plenty of time to make his mark there as well. As far as I am concerned, I do not believe that the Church will make any change in its gay marriage stance, but the most important thing for the Church to focus on at the moment is addressing the scandals and leading by example.
The Catholic Church is by no means obsolete and will find a foothold going forward in the twenty-first century.