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Francis: the pope of surprises

By James van Schie - posted Friday, 15 March 2013

The biographical sound bite about Pope Francis is already complete. He is humble, committed to the poor, and conservative. Pope Francis is no doubt all of these things. However, he will be and is already the 'Pope of Surprises'.

The first surprise was the Conclave itself. He was not a favorite and during the intense media coverage in the lead up, nobody even bothered to consider him as a likely candidate. We looked at this Papal election process like any other election. Media commentators decided that it was really a question "who can deliver a swing in the marginal Catholic seats of western Europe or the east and west coast of the USA?" Some suggested that the Church needed a 'game changer', maybe an African would deliver a good news cycle for Catholicism. Others seemed to think that each of the Cardinals should be booked into a room in an RSL so they can meet real people. And finally there were those that just seemed to think Kevin Rudd was the only man for the job.

The next surprise was Francis' first act as Pope. He stepped forward onto the balcony as a meek and humble man visibly in awe of what was ahead of him. Instead of the grand, lofty and always unfilled promises we are used to hearing from political leaders, he very humbly invited people to journey with him and he called the crowd to silence and prayer.


Fulton Sheen, the famous American Catholic once said "there are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be."

It seems to have surprised every media outlet that there are Catholic Church leaders who would ride a bus, spend time with the poor, or wash the feet of sick people in a hospice. This is how tens of thousands of Catholic clerics spend each day. In places like Latin America, Africa, most of Asia – Catholic priests and Religious women are very often the only ones in amongst the poor and the sick. In Australia too even where poverty is not so obvious or stark, Catholic priests and Religious women are sitting with people who are sick, they are crying with parents that have lost a child, and they are helping to feed the hungry.

The priorities for this Pope are known only to him and they may also turn out to surprise us. The Pope is the leader of a church that literally covers every inch of the world. The human experience across the world is wildly different. In places like China and North Korea, Catholicism is a freeing and energising force. For people in sub-Saharan Africa, Catholicism is at the centre of life. For Catholics in Pakistan, parts of the Middle East and places like Sudan you live your faith under threat of death. For Catholics in Australia, we perhaps struggle to have faith amidst the disheartening revelations of sexual abuse and the terrible hurt this has inflicted.

The Pope is tasked with relating to people across all these many different experiences and sincerely, humbly, and courageously proposing the truth. Political parties dedicate huge resources to polling people on what they want and then promising to give it to them. The Pope will instead seek to speak of our universal human need and the aspirations of our hearts.

The Pope does not fit in a box of us versus them, or left vs right. In the recent US election, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York noted that the Catholic Church is a broad tent because it includes both the liberal Vice President Joe Biden and the conservative Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Liberals quote the Pope on issues of poverty, global warming and welfare. Conservatives quote the Pope on same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia.

The Catholic faith spans across political divides and unites people who would otherwise never be in the same room together. This human unity was crucial to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. "A united humanity will be able to confront the many troubling problems of the present time: from the menace of terrorism to the humiliating poverty in which millions of human beings live, from the proliferation of weapons to the pandemics and the environmental destruction which threatens the future of our planet."


Pope Francis will continue to surprise the world through the Church he now leads. A Church that provides healthcare to more people than the United Nations. A Church that educates more people than any government or non government organisation. A Church that continues to walk humbly with the most disadvantaged, regardless of their religion, race, status or sex. A Church that does all this and so much more because her people seek to follow the example, teaching and love of Jesus Christ.

This new Pope can be assured of the help and prayers of 1.2 billion imperfect Catholics around the world and all men and women of good will.

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About the Author

James has a longstanding involvement with Catholic Social Welfare and International Aid in Australia and overseas and works for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney in Renewal.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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