“Today, people are suffering from poverty, but also from lack of love,” Pope Francis mused via his wildly popular Twitter account, @Pontifex. With over 5.3 million followers tuning in to hear the words of the pontiff in nine different languages each day, it has become remarkably simple for anyone with an internet connection to keep in touch with everything the pope has to say.
Likewise, it’s easy to see why the masses have popularly dubbed him “The People’s Pope” ever since his 2013 election. Having worked as both a chemical technician and Buenos Aires nightclub bouncer, Pope Francis appears to many Catholics not as a religious monarch who transcends the ordinary, but as someone whose past has kept him grounded in a world that is undeniably close to their own.
But aside from the social media presence and the fascinating past, what is it that makes Pope Francis so different from his recent predecessors?
First and foremost, there are matters of money to discuss – for the current pope, this means embracing a modest lifestyle that is based less on decorum and more on living in solidarity with the world’s Catholics. Where the average set of cardinal’s vestments is reported to cost up to $20,000, Francis has opted for a much simpler attire since the evening of his election, dressing in a simple white cassock, and inviting Church officials to follow his example by adopting a more modest manner of dress themselves. When presented with his ceremonial piscatory ring, he chose simple silver instead of gold, and resolved to keep the same pectoral cross that he had worn during his time as a cardinal.
Instead of choosing to live in the official papal residence in the Apostolic Palace, the Pope now famously resides at the Vatican guest house in a simple white-walled room, decorated with little more than a wooden crucifix and a small statue of Our Lady of Luján, the patron saint of Argentina.
“The Lord put it clearly: you cannot serve two masters,” Pope Francis tweeted in the week before Christmas. “You have to choose between God and money.”
Doesn’t it strike a bit of an odd chord that while the leader of the Catholic Church is living in a tiny Vatican City apartment, cardinals and bishops across the world spend their days living in luxury?
Last May, The New York Times investigated New York City’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who, despite insisting that he has reflected upon Pope Francis’ teachings of humility, occupies 15,000 square feet of prime Manhattan real estate, complete with two housekeepers, a private chef, and a personal chauffeur. The overall value of the Neo-Gothic mansion has recently been appraised at $30 million.
Though the case of Cardinal Dolan certainly veers toward the extreme end of the spectrum, a recent CNN investigation found that at least 10 of the 34 active archbishops in the United States reside in homes worth over $1 million. Worldwide, the situation seems to be even more pressing. Last year, Pope Francis even went as far as to fire Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Germany, the so-called “Bishop of Bling,” whose $43 million dollar residence was recently renovated to include such excesses as a $20,000 bathtub and $620,000 worth of artwork.
Cincinnati’s Archbishop Schnurr has been the target of criticism after trading in his downtown Cincinnati apartment for a $469,718 house in Anderson Township, which was purchased for him by the archdiocese in 2009.
In terms of doctrine, the pope has stayed true to the stances of traditional Catholic teachings, but has urged members of the clergy to spend less time “obsessing” over the most controversial issues, many of which have painted the Church in an increasingly negative light in the media.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” he said in an interview with the Italian Jesuit Journal. “But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context…We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
During his very recent journey to the Philippines, the Pope was greeted by seas of Catholic faithful, and presided over a crowd of six million at the celebration of the Mass. Subsequent to the trip, the Vatican announced the Pope’s plans to travel to the United States this autumn, where he will make stops in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.
For a Church that seems to be making more headlines for scandal, rather than philanthropy in recent years, this newfound energy for getting out into the world and serving the people is a commodity that has been far overdue.
The Age of Francis, it seems, couldn’t have come at a better time.