For two area Catholic leaders, Pope Francis’ selection as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is a sign of the new life the pontiff is breathing into the Catholic church.
Francis, an Argentine Jesuit priest who has been in office less than a year, received one of the most celebrated accolades in modern history when Time announced its selection Dec. 11.
“He is the right person for the right time,” said the Rev. David Mickiewicz, priest of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oneonta. “He is throwing everyone off-kilter. It is unfair to judge Francis compared to his predecessors, but we are human and that is what we do.”
The previous popes, Benedict XVI and his predecessor, John Paul II, were embroiled in scandal and coping with the ideals of the 21st century. It was during the reign of Pope John Paul II that several Catholic priests were accused and found guilty of sexual abuse. In addition, the Catholic Church was often perceived as being out of touch with modern lifestyle choices including contraceptives, women’s rights and personal sexuality choices.
“His (Francis’) focus is different,” Mickiewicz said. “John Paul came out of a World War II history with its own problems for the church. He was a philosopher. Benedict was a professor. Both of these men were very intelligent, they were very concerned with doctrine. Francis is more concerned with the performance of the position.”
Francis’ background as the only non-European pontiff and as a Jesuit priest make him a very different pope, and provide an insight into his point of view. Jesuits, male priests belonging to the Society of Jesus, are often described as missionary soldiers, paying tribute to their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier turned priest.
In Argentina, Francis was known as a cardinal of humility, washing the feet of the poor, taking public transportation and walking among the people without security interference.
Media reports suggest that being elected pope has not changed Francis’ demeanor. He is said to be frugal with the Vatican’s funds, moving freely among his congregations and remaining approachable.
“He is very well respected,” said the Rev. John P. Rosson of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Cooperstown. “He has highlighted the church as a servant. He is a pope by gesture and by vesture. What I mean is he see himself as a shepherd. He is a Jesuit, who has adopted a Franciscan name. He does not wear red shoes or live in the palace. He does not sing. He is less concerned with defining the Gospels and more concerned with encountering the person of Christ.”
Rosson said the pope is not inclined to change the rules of Catholicism; however, he is focused on healing rather than judging.
“We have so many disenfranchised Catholics,” Rosson said. “Catholicism is still the largest denomination in the country, but this is followed by the second-largest category — non-practicing Catholics.”
According to Rosson, Francis was nearly elected pope twice before, and it was expected in the Catholic community that he would become the next pope.
“This is a pope that the United Nations could have elected,” Rosson said. “It is like when the astronauts look down at earth from the moon — they see no boundaries between communities. This pope is less concerned with history and more concerned with the present. In the midst of all that is bad in the world, this is a moment of joy.”