For the first time in a while, I'm feeling optimistic about the direction of the Catholic church's hierarchy in general and about the office of the papacy in particular. Many authors have written about the plethora of ways in which Pope Francis is hitting the "restart" button for a church so devastated by sexual and financial corruption.
Forgotten, however, is the fact that Pope Benedict XVI had to resign for this breath of fresh air to occur. The pope emeritus deserves recognition for his courageous and humble decision and action. Paradoxically, the conservative pope's nontraditional decision to resign has paved the way for the current pope to begin to mend the broken church structures that have allowed corruption to continue unchecked.
But what are the contemporary roots of this "broken" church? John Paul II — while bringing hope to many — essentially ruled with an iron fist. He didn't hesitate to excommunicate priests for voicing support of liberation theology, he failed to investigate several sexual abuse claims, and he didn't welcome conversations about topics in modern sexual ethics (i.e. birth control, same-sex marriage, cohabitation). In the foreword to Matthew Fox's book The Pope's War, theologian Bruce Chilton writes that "Pope John Paul II deliberately set about moving back to a pre-Council model for the papacy."
While Chilton is right about JPII's conservative doctrinal outlook, the late pope certainly revolutionized the papacy — some say for the worse. JPII was the ultimate rockstar, racking traveler miles that would make President Obama jealous. JPII enjoyed huge popularity with the youth — as is evident from the huge crowds that would gather during World Youth Day events. And he is currently in the process of canonization.
Yet, the late pope fostered a hierarchical model of leadership that rewarded silence, blind obedience, and rigidness. JPII's "iron fist" and divisive leadership resulted in a church that was sharply divided internally and that consequently progressively distanced itself from the contemporary world. Many Catholics thus grew disillusioned with this church that emphasized control and doctrines over openness and social justice in an increasingly unjust world. I was one of those frustrated Catholics.
I can now say, for the first time in my young life, that the pope brings me a sense of hope. Francis is compassionate and open to conversation about today's most contentious issues. He appears to be nonjudgmental, as exemplified from his statement heard around the world, "Who am I to judge others?" Those few words are so refreshing in contrast to the many utterances of condemnation and disapproval from his predecessors. Pope Francis' famous "hug seen around the world" shows that he cares more about bringing the message of Jesus to the masses than appearing as some aloof politician. His lashing out against the German bishop who spent millions on renovations demonstrates that this man is certainly ready to tackle corruption and injustice internally. And his recent willingness to hear from Catholics about issues like contraception and gay marriages perhaps signals a shift to a more grassroots church — a church that listens to its members and is even willing to change certain teachings.
As a teacher at a Catholic school, I see my students eagerly awaiting what the pope says or does next. This anticipation is in stark contrast to the indifference with which they met Benedict or even JPII. Francis' words and actions bring hope to a generation that has grown impatient (and rightfully so) with politicians and religious leaders. Catholics and non-Catholics alike see a beacon of light radiating from the face of a man with the power to change the church — and with the help of all of us, perhaps even the world.
Pope Francis is off to a wonderful and inspirational start. I can only hope that his spirit remains strong amid any bickering within the Vatican and church's hierarchy. I, for one, feel a renewed sense of pride in calling myself a follower of Jesus' true message, namely one of love, compassion, and equality for all!
César J. Baldelomar, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, teaches theology in Miami, FL.