The Catholic Church itself may not be the most popular institution in the world, but Pope Francis seems intent on cultivating some good cheer for the Vatican. The world has already talked about his relative frugality, his acceptance of gays, and his apparent desire to reform aspects of the church that have alienated many followers. Pope Francis evidently wants to make Catholicism more relevant to the average Christian’s daily life and is willing to adapt to do so.
Yesterday, the Pope announced that disused convents and monasteries should be used for housing refugees. While touring Astalli, a Jesuit run refugee center, he met with a family of Syrian refugees currently taking asylum there and brought attention to the problems that those fleeing from conflict zones face. According to Reuters, the church already rents out abandoned convents and monasteries as hotels, and while some criticize the monetary motives for doing so, if the money is going toward supporting refugees then maybe the criticism is a little undeserved.
While the church still has plenty to answer for, religious organizations can benefit strife-stricken communities through the social security and emotional support that they provide. The refugee center run by Pope Francis’ own Jesuit order is a good example of that. Astalli currently houses over 21,000 refugees, most of whom have probably left behind a sense of community, their means of livelihood, extended family and culture, all for the sake of safety. Housing provided by the church may not be a panacea for all the problems that come with loose borders but it is a good start.
The church’s support for refugees also helps reduce the economic pressure that hits the region that is receiving refugees, making locals more accepting of immigrants into their established communities. Perhaps the best part of this entire venture is the secular nature of Astalli: many residents are Muslims from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa. The religious message of caring about the suffering of others has pertinence in cases like these. Empathy, through religious organizations or elsewhere, can be an important driving force for social good. Of course, one can speculate about the church’s motives for supporting immigrants, including in America. Some believe that recent immigrants are more likely to convert and that demographics show that the majority of immigrants from Mexico are Roman Catholic. So demographics may also play a role in the church’s benevolence.
Pope Francis has also been in the news for responding to people’s letters through personal phone calls. Though there’s plenty in the media about fake calls from the Pope, some instances have been confirmed by the Vatican. Two notable cases of confirmed calls from the Pope, have been a single mother who was left by her married boyfriend and a rape victim from Argentina. Other popular reports of a phone call to a gay man struggling to combine faith and sexuality proved to be false.
By personally reaching out to individuals who wrote the Vatican seeking emotional support, Pope Francis seems to be making Christianity more accessible for those who want to practice it. One of the problems with religion in general can be the inaccessibility of clergymen or priests, combined with the demand for blind faith and acceptance of religious rules. This can alienate those who are on the fence about their faith. The Pope’s gesture to promote accessibility may encourage others to remain practicing followers of the faith or others to adopt it. In past years, the Pope, with the exception of John Paul II, has been an aloof figure, which though important to Roman Catholics, did not play a role in their daily lives. But Pope Francis’ actions have really sought to bridge this gap.
In addition to reaching out to people on a personal level, the Pope has also been involved in current international events, like the debate over Syria. Pope Francis hosted a daylong vigil for peace in Syria this past weekend.
While it is commendable that the Roman Catholic Church is taking an interest in significant international events, it is worth noticing that his statements on the matter have focused solely on the prevalence of peace and the condition of the people. Unsurprisingly, he is against military action, though notably he has refrained from picking a side in the conflict or laying blame anywhere.
As we debate the costs of war with Syria, turning it into a political and economic discussion, the vigil can serve as a reminder of the humanitarian aspect of current world events. It’s worth questioning how much of a role the Pope plays in disseminating information about world events to followers across the world. And what, if any, impact the Pope’s current actions are having on Christians in the developing world where issues like gay rights and the legality of abortion may not be at the forefront of political debate.
For now, Pope Francis is doing well and seems to be well liked by most, faithful and not. You go, Pope!