An estimated 1.5 million people are expected to join Pope Francis on September 27 for a celebration of the Mass at the culmination of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The massive gathering, plus the pope’s participation in the Festival of Families the day before, which is expected to draw close to 750,000 people, has led to the coining of the term “Popeapocalypse”.
Universities are closing, pilgrims are staking sleeping plots in the Philadelphia Zoo, the mass transit system is holding a lottery for train tickets and women expecting to give birth in the area are looking at traveling to other cities -- all in anticipation of Pope Francis's visit.
There is no other religious, entertainment or political leader alive today who could garner anywhere near the kind of response inspired by the pope -- a fact that leaves some people scratching their heads and wondering: why?
Why does the pope matter so much?
He's A Transnational Political Leader
As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope occupies a position that no other religious leader can match. Most major religions do not have a hierarchical structure that clearly acknowledges one leader who embodies the tradition like the pope does for Catholicism. The pope is the head of a cohesive, transnational organization that has been in existence for close to two thousand years. The church has a chain of command from the Vatican all the way to the local parish that is capable of transmitting information, ideology and material goods throughout the world.
Contrast this with other religions that are mostly fragmented among many different sects, and leaders among them. And even among those that do have existing hierarchies, such as the Anglican Communion, the numbers do not compare to the estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
The influence of the Catholic Church is augmented by the status of the Vatican as an independent city-state that maintains diplomatic relations with countries around the world. As the leader of the Vatican, when the pope visits a country, it's not just as a religious leader, it is as a head of state. This sets the pope apart from most leaders, whether religious or political, aside from more ceremonial positions, such as the one held by the Queen of England, who is both titular head of the Anglican Church as well as of the Commonwealth but exerts little influence on either. The pope, on the other hand, is the clear authority behind both of these titles and able to wield influence that comes with it.
Not only is the Catholic Church transnational, in many parts of the world it is an influential player in domestic politics and civic life. These domestic churches are led by local bishops, archbishops and cardinals, all of whom are appointed by the pope and who are responsible to him. This means that the kind of priorities and interests of local Catholic Church’s is greatly influenced by kind of people put into the highest places by the pope.
He Has International Religous Influence
Aside from political and diplomatic power, the soft inspirational power of the pope is even more impressive. For a large section of humanity, the Catholic Church has for millennia been their conduit to the Divine, and has provided answers to the questions of how to live a moral and meaningful life.
As the head of the Roman Catholic Church the pope's authority is linked back to Saint Peter, one of Jesus’s disciples who is considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be the first pope. Papal pronouncements hold serious weight and the pope has great influence on how Catholics understand what is holy -- for instance he plays the central role in the process of declaring saints and shrines. The pope also is the highest representation of the Catholic Church to other faith traditions, whether to other religions, other Christian denominations or the secular world.
Not only are papal pronouncements and activities conveyed through Catholic channels, they are also the subject of media interest and are covered closely. When the pope speaks about the Christian Gospel, as he does on Wednesdays and Sundays in St. Peter’s Square, through Encyclicals and in less formal settings, he often relates the religious and spiritual message not only to personal morality and salvation, but also to societal issues and political life. This frequently involves taking positions on controversial debates in countries around the world and within broader world events.
Given the immense power of the position it is clear that any pope is going to matter. However, when the role is held by such captivating figure as Pope Francis, the pope matters a lot.
From the moment the newly elected pope faced the crowds in St. Peter's Square and his chosen name was announced -- Francis -- the spirit of possibility began to blow through the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Francis's Particular Papacy
Francis has already become one of the most remarkable figures of the 21 century. From the very beginning, when he eschewed the Apostolic Palace for a simple boarding house, traded in the pope’s Mercedes popemobile for a Hyundai, and declared how he wished for a poor church and church for the poor, Francis has made headlines with his -- to some -- surprising words and deeds.
Within his first year the new pope observed Maundy Thursday by washing the feet of young inmates, including women and Muslims, said that atheists could be redeemed, opined that the church had been emphasizing gay marriage and abortion too much, accused the bureaucracy of having "spiritual Alzheimer's", stated that global financial markets are “tyrannizing the poor” and, of course, his now iconic response about a gay people: “Who am I to judge?”
He has gone on to use his platform to especially highlight the plight of immigrants, the homeless, the poor, Middle East peace, the persecution of Christians and most recently took on the moral question of the environment his encyclical, "Laudato Si."
The pope makes for good headlines but his priorities reverberate within world politics and within societies around the world.
Pope Francis has been credited with helping to broker the rapprochement between the US and Cuba, the country where he will be visiting directly before his arrival in the U.S. Francis's actions echo the work of John Paul II who was influential in the cracking of the Iron Curtain with his visit to his home country of Poland in 1979, where 2 million people welcomed the first Pope to visit the Communist country.
In the United States, Pope Francis's "Who am I to judge" line was referenced by a Catholic State Senator in Illinois who cast the deciding vote in favor of gay marriage in 2013, before the Supreme Court made that it the law of the land. Conversely, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was forced to refute Francis’ statement on the environment and economics. "I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope," Bush said.
Francis will be the first pope to address the U.S. Congress, which will be sure to pose challenges to political figures on both sides of the aisle. It seems likely that the pope’s visit and his words will be referenced within the presidential primaries and general election. It has hard to point to another figure who has been as direct about issues such as the environment, economics, and immigration than Pope Francis.
He's Helped Reform The Catholic Church
Within the Vatican, Francis has been active in trying to reform and "clean up" the Curia as well as the Vatican Bank, which helps fund the work of the church. His effectiveness in these efforts, as well as the most pressing work on repairing the damage of lives from clergy sexual abuse, have been closely watched. While many are concerned at the slow pace of reform, it appears that, under Francis, the church is setting up appropriate structures and beginning to move in the right direction, most prominently within the bank.
As mentioned above, the pope has pretty much absolute power over the hierarchy of the church. Part of his responsibilities are to appoint new Cardinals who will eventually vote for the next pope, as well as appoint and replace bishops and archbishops who provide leadership to Catholics in countries around the world. Francis has used this power to increase the presence and power of the global south by appointing cardinals from some of the poorest regions of the world. He has also shuffled the roles of leading Catholic clergy in the United States and elevated some of the more moderate figures among the Catholic leadership as well as swiftly removing Bishop Tebartz-van Elst (Bishop Bling) in Germany for overly extravagant expenditures.
One of the most noticeable transformations under Francis has been in the space of social media. Francis’s predecessor arrived on Twitter with the regrettable handle @Pope2YouVatican, which Jon Stewart mocked on his show. Nobody is making fun now. Under Pope Francis, the Twitter operation has switched into high gear with @Pontifex tweeting in multiple languages (including Latin!) and Francis has been named the most influential tweeter for the last two years.
However, it is the pope’s offline presence that really shows how much he really matters.
In one-on-one meetings, or in front of three million in Rio, Francis's humble, warm, pastoral spirit has resonated with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In this world where religious and non-religious alike are hungry for a sense of connection, a desire for the articulation of inequality, and inspiration to work for a more compassionate, peaceful and just world, the Pope's words and deeds matter.
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