Why Does Pope Francis Have Such a Positive Effect on People?

If you’ve been here any length of time, you know by this point that I have, at best, an arm’s length relationship with religion. From the start, I have yet to find a religion that has a basis in fact. When I say fact, it has to have a scientific base to it. I refuse to have my intelligence insulted into thinking that the Earth is 10,000 years old, that man walked with the dinosaurs and has ruled the planet over the last 6000 years. There’s also that dichotomy between a Supreme Being that is supposed to “love you” but, if you don’t follow His laws to the letter, will cast into a fiery pit to roast for all eternity, but that’s a minor point. Let’s just leave it that religion and I have several areas we would need to work on if there was to be any contemplations.

This isn’t meant to imply that I don’t know my share about many of the major religions around the world and even some of the minor ones. Catholicism was one of those that has always interested me because there is so little effort made to change it from the pagan days of Roman mythology. Whereas Christianity brought about the birth of Jesus on December 25 to coincide with the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice (Bible scholars believe that Jesus Christ was either born in the spring or the fall, with fall much more likely – September 25 is a more accurate date to some), Catholicism doesn’t even try to hide their “patron saints,” basing them on the Roman gods and goddesses that populated the polytheistic religion that preceded them. As to the “God of gods,” ancient Romans looked to the deity Jupiter; to watch over the “patron saints,” there was, well…God.

Catholicism, with its roughly 1.13 billion followers (that’s the number the Vatican, the base for the Church of Rome and Catholicism, offers), is the second largest religious base in the world behind only Islam (I am separating Catholicism from Christianity because there are major differences between the two in my opinion; for the sake of argument, if you combine Catholicism and Christianity they are larger than Islam by number of followers). In the United States, 69.4 million citizens recognize themselves as Catholic, making them the largest denomination in the country. The Catholic faith has permeated U. S. society and government, with our current Vice President Joe Biden, the Speaker of the House John Boehner, six of the nine Supreme Court justices (including Chief Justice John Roberts) and a majority of the members of Congress and the state’s Governors worshipping as Catholics.

Therefore, it isn’t that surprising the attention that the papal visit of the current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, to the United States has captured. Every major news network covered Pope Francis’ arrival in the U. S. on Wednesday (from Cuba, interestingly enough…a country that the U. S. just recently reestablished diplomatic ties with that was aided by this current Pope) with a fervor that is usually reserved for the British monarchy (that one I can’t even figure out). On Thursday, his address to Congress was “must see” television, as was his departure for New York City and more meetings. But what has been especially interesting – and I can honestly say that I am counted in this area – is the effect that Pope Francis’ visit has had on those of us with a skewed view of religion.

To say that Pope Francis isn’t a change from the past…oh, 2000 years?…of papal history would be the understatement of several millennia. Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere in the over 2000-year history of the Catholic Church, the first non-European pope since 741 A.D. and the first Jesuit pope in history…that’s quite a few firsts on the docket already. Where Pope Francis has been able to further separate himself, however, is in his words and actions, which are probably the things that make him appealing to non-religious people.

Because of his Jesuit background that has an emphasis on social justice, Pope Francis – perhaps the least gaudily clad Pope in my lifetime, eschewing any gold jewelry or other finery unlike past Popes – has put an emphasis on working with the poor and bringing their standard of living out of the sewer from where it exists in many parts of the world. Sometimes this has caused Pope Francis to rail against “greed” and the pursuit of money over anything else in life. The Pope wasn’t the one who came up with this…it is part of the teachings of the Bible, the book that many claim to follow but when asked to put into practice decide to forget the sections they don’t agree with.

Pope Francis also recently released an encyclical (a papal comment on Catholic doctrine) that discussed global warming. Saying that humans and their lifestyles are causing increased problems with the situation, Pope Francis directed people to take an appreciation of their planet as they are “stewards of the Earth.” Once again, this isn’t anything radical (unlike what some might say), this is something that is in the Bible and a challenge to humanity to not fuck up the only place that they can live.

For myself, the biggest thing that Pope Francis did was today. In Washington, D. C., following his speech to the U. S. Congress, the schedule had Pope Francis having a high powered lunch with the leaders of both parties of the House and Senate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as other Congressional staffers. Instead of noshing with these “power brokers,” Pope Francis did what a man of God would do:  turned them down and headed to lunch with 200 people at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, including some who were homeless or in need of the services of the organization.

The ability of Pope Francis to not only take the examples put into the Bible – love thy neighbor, reach out to those less fortunate, be a good caretaker of life and your surroundings (I could go on, but you get the idea) – but also to buck the trends of some in his own Church to politicize many of the beliefs of Catholicism (if there was ever a day to bring back the Papal food tester to make sure Pope Francis’ food wasn’t tainted, these days would be it). When some religious conservatives even have issues with what Pope Francis says, then he must be on the right track somewhere.

In my lifetime, this is only the second time that a religious figure has been able to impress me on any level. The first person was Billy Graham, who was able to look past religious beliefs and speak directly to whoever was listening about the word of God. Sure, Graham was a Christian but his sermons could be heard by, respected and learned from by anyone from any denomination or from no denomination at all (his son Franklin, on the other hand, has almost blasphemed the Graham name). Until Pope Francis came along (this Pope seems to have the same ability to get people to listen to what he’s saying), Graham was the only religious person whose viewpoint I actually respected.

This doesn’t give pass to the Catholic Church on some of their other subjects, however. The Vatican Bank is one of the largest in the world, with assets conservatively estimated at $5 billion, along with art treasures that the world has never seen. Property owned by the Catholic Church is worth well into the billions. The Vatican Library has documents that potentially could change history that few have ever seen. There is the denial of several atrocities that have occurred over the course of history, including the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the war against science in the Middle Ages (and the continued struggle between science and religion as a whole today), allowing the Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War II, the past and continued cover-up of child molestation by priests and several other issues. These are areas that have been woefully addressed by the Catholic Church and its leadership in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Even with Pope Francis at the helm, there are still issues that the Catholic Church is behind the times on (let’s not even get started there). But Pope Francis has shown that there is potentially a light that is leading the Catholic Church into the future instead of the darkness of dogma.

Will this light continue to shine? Pope Francis has already said he doesn’t envision his tenure with the papacy being a long one, but the hope does exist that the next man chosen to be the “right hand of God” will at least listen to what Francis has said and perhaps put his own futuristic mark on the direction of the Catholic Church. If the Church does decide to try to reverse what Pope Francis has started, then they might just push more people – of their own faith, other faiths and even those with no faith – away from the basis of believing.

As Syria Burns, the World Simply Watches

The Middle East is a powder keg of differing religions, different religious factions and different viewpoints on pretty much everything, including whether the sky is blue or not. Many in the United States and Europe, far removed from the turbulent area, think that it is the issues between the Muslims and the nation of Israel that are the major problems. Far from it…the major problems are between the Muslims themselves.

Much like Christianity in Europe and the U. S., there are different factions when you discuss the Muslim faith. In Christianity, you can be Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist or Protestant…the list is quite lengthy. Each of the sects has their own particular take on the subject of God, Jesus, the Bible and how to worship as a whole. The same can be said for Muslims as well; there are the Sunnis, the Shias, the Kharijte and the Kurds, and each of those sects have their own subdivisions to make it even more confusing. And, much like Christianity in the Middle Ages (and some would argue even today), the Muslim sects fight with each other, albeit between the Muslims it is a legitimate life or death fight, not one of simply words.

The civil war in Syria is a synopsis of the problems in the Middle East. Three different sects, the Sunnis (the Islamic State – call them ISIL, ISIS or IS), the Kurds and the Shias (some from Iran), battling for control of one of the richest supplies of oil in the world, destroying their own lands and people over the past 4½ years to the point that refugees are fleeing from the country while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad plays the role of Nero. The warfare in Syria is of the utmost cruelty:  gas bombs, poison and nerve gases, phosphorous weaponry and a variety of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These weapons are used most frequently, but the armies of all the combatants can simply walk into a village and execute its male population. As Syria continues to burn, the world has simply watched and, with the refugee situation, it cannot watch much longer.

Since the beginning of 2015, the United Nations estimates that 366,000 refugees have left Syria and Iraq, heading for Europe for a new beginning. There are plenty of problems with this situation. The situation is in the Middle East, but few nations in that area are stepping up to take on some responsibility to help a neighboring country. Nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey or even Iran have not even stepped forward to welcome refugees into their countries, content to sit back and watch even further while al-Assad continues to murder his own people and IS continues to destroy the remainder of the country. This refusal to assist in lessening the tragedy leads to desperate people making desperate moves.

Without the ability to remain even close to their own region, many refugees are heading for Europe by any means necessary. Europe – and in particular Germany – have welcoming regulations when it comes to those who are politically oppressed or are leaving war-torn areas, but the issue is getting to Germany or one of these other nations. Over the weekend, the nation of Hungary, which has accepted roughly 130,000 asylum requests (of which roughly 38,000 were Syrian, according to the Wall Street Journal) was the roadblock, holding up thousands of refugees to the point where many Syrians started walking rather than waiting for transportation. The reason for Hungary’s decision to block the refugees? Fears of the refugees being sent back to Hungary once they reach another European Union country and they are not allowed entry (under the rules of the European Union, a member nation can send a refugee back to the last EU nation they went through if they are not allowed asylum).

The problem that Europe is facing regarding the influx of Syrians is twofold. First, the sheer number of incoming refugees means that several nations are going to have to step up and take on an appropriate number of the refugees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Germany can handle a certain number of refugees but that, in the future, other countries would have to be willing to allow the refugees into their countries without issue. France is refusing to allow refugees inside its borders, fortifying their defenses with more troops and catching refuges as they try to cross and sending them back to Italy, while Greece (having its own issues since its near default on its financial debt earlier this year with the European Union) hasn’t stepped forward either.

The second issue is a matter of security in the countries where Syrians are headed. Analysts with the Central Intelligence Agency have stated that the potential for terrorists to embed themselves with the true Syrian refugees is quite realistic, even to the point that it is “conceivable” that a terrorist attack could occur in Europe within the next few months from someone that is a part of the Syrian refugee situation. While we would like to think that this isn’t possible, it is a potential reason why the United States hasn’t stepped up further itself other than humanitarian aid in the region and one that has to be in the minds of security officials in the European Union also.

The main thing that many are overlooking is that more could have been done from the start of the conflict. Instead of looking for resolutions, many saw an opportunity to remove a powerful dictator from power (al-Assad is the only leader who survived the “Arab Spring” protests of 2011, watching as Libya, Egypt and other countries saw their leaders toppled). When that dictator stepped over the line in using poison gas on his own people, world governments failed to keep the dictator in check and do anything about it (potentially President Barack Obama’s biggest mistake in his term in the White House) or allowed it to continue through denying it even existed (Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China catch the blame here). Now we have a situation in Syria that is volatile at the least and a threat to the world’s security at its extreme.

The images on our television screens may seem far away as those Syrians who are looking for a new home, a new opportunity or even a new life traipse across a continent far from their homes, but something should be felt and done for the people who haven’t asked for anything like this to happen to them. The deaths of men, women and children while trying to flee the ravages of war shouldn’t be happening, nor should the villainous charlatans who fleece these people and then leave them to sickness or death in a truck or a cargo hold of a ship (those bastards just need to be executed). We also need to see what we can do as people, even for those who may not think like us religiously or philosophically…the first step to bringing the world together would be to get beyond simple divisions such as skin color or religion and look at each other as we truly are, flesh and blood humans looking for the best for our family’s futures or for the best out of life.