Pope Francis: The Greatest Modern Pope?

On March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis — the first pope with this regnal name, taken in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. In the short time he has reigned since his successor Benedict XVI resigned, His Holiness Pope Francis has achieved a number of other firsts for a pope, as well as stirred up questions as to whether he’ll be a traditional leader of the Catholic Church or a reformist. On the hand, Pope Francis has been towing the traditional line of the Vatican, and on the other he seems more affable than his recent predecessors and has been shaking up the Curia with his appointments.

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Facts About Pope Francis and the Catholic Church

Pope Francis: Timeline and Milestones

Some facts about Pope Francis, aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

  • Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s timeline and milestones:
  • Born Dec 17, 1936, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • While not born in Italy, his father was Italian.
  • He is one of five children, and recently lost three relatives (including two great-nephews) to a car crash (Aug 2014).
  • Ordained on Dec 13, 1969.
  • Became Archbishop (of Beunos Aires, Argentina) on Feb 28, 1998 (until he became Pope).
  • Made Cardinal by Pope John Paul II on Feb 21, 2001 (until he became Pope).
  • Elected pope and took the papacy on Mar 13, 2013.
  • He is the first non-European Pope in nearly 1,300 years (since Gregory III, declared pope in 741 AD), the first pope from the Americas, the first pope from the Southern hemisphere, the first Jesuit pope and the first pope of the 21st century.
  • He has worked as a club bouncer and janitor.
  • He has training as a chemical technician, with actual lab experience.
  • Had part of a lung removed to fight pneumonia.

Here are a few of Pope Francis’ milestones:

  • He was ranked #1 in Fortune magazine’s 2014 list of the 50 greatest leaders (heads of state, organizations and corporations). The only other religious/ spiritual leader in the top 10 was His Holiness the Dalai Lama (#9)
  • He was “Person of the Year” in Time magazine in Dec 2013.
  • In the same month, he received the same title in The Advocate magazine, which represents the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community.
  • He was “Best-dressed man of 2012” in Esquire magazine.

The Catholic Church

Recent Popes Before Francis

Pope Francis is the first pope of this century, based on his first day of papacy. There were only nine popes before him who were declared in the 20th century. In reverse chronological order, they are:

  • Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger), served 19 Apr 2005 – 28 Feb 2013.
  • Pope John Paul II (Karol Jozef Wojtyla), served 16 Oct 1978 – 2 Apr 2005.
  • John Paul I (Albino Luciani), served 26 Aug 1978 – 28 Sep 1978.
  • Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini), served 21 Jun 1963 – 6 Aug 1978.
  • John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli), served 28 Oct 1958 – 3 Jun 1963.
  • Pius XII (Eugenio Maria Giusepe Giovanni Pacelli), served 9 Oct 1939 – 9 Oct 1958.
  • Pius XI (Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti), served 6 Feb 1922 – 10 Feb 1939.
  • Benedict XV (Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista della Chiesa), served 3 Sep 1914 – 22 Jan 1922.
  • Pius X (Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto), served 4 Aug 1903 – 20 Aug 1914.

All popes above except Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, had their papal term end upon their death. Benedict resigned – the first pope to do so in about 600 years.

Recent Popes Who Became Saints

We’re hopefully a long ways off before anyone has occasion to suggest that Pope Francis is a saint, though he did get to announce the canonization of many saints, including two recent popes. While there were a significant number of popes who became saints during the first 500 years of the Catholic Church (52 of the first 55 popes), canonizing popes, on the other hand, has become less common. Only seven popes have been canonized in the last 1,000 years.

Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII were declared saints by Pope Francis in Apr 2014, at a public ceremony also attended by his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict. They are the 79th and 80th papal saints, and this is the first time in the Catholic Church’s roughly 2,000 year history where two popes were canonized at the same time. The last papal saint before them was St. Pius X, elected to the papacy in 1903.

A few notes on canonization:

  • The waiting period before canonization after death was traditionally 50 years, shortened by Pope John Paul II to 5 years, then waived by Pope Benedict XVI.
  • The average wait time since 1588’s creation of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has been 181 years (between death and canonization).
  • A 2013 estimate of the number of declared saints is in excess of 10,000, although no accurate figure exists. Most saints are non-papal.
  • John Paul II canonized nearly 500 (482) saints. Prior to that, there were about 300 canonizations over the preceeding 600 years.
  • Pope Francis canonized over 800 people (813) in his first such ceremony . Those canonized were the “Martyrs of Otranto,” beheaded in 1480 by Ottoman soldiers for refusal to convert to Islam.
  • Other popes in consideration for canonization are Pius IX, Pius XII, Paul VI, John Paul I

Size of the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has an estimated 1.23B members worldwide (2014 estimate from the Vatican’s “Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae”, referenced from CARA at Georgetown University) – up from the 2010 estimate of 1.15B. In the United States, based on the Official Catholic Directory, there were 65.6M Catholics in 2010 and 66.6M in 2014. However, based on estimates from surveys, there were 74.6M self-identified Catholics in the USA in 2010 and 76.7M in 2014.

Pew Forum figures (Mar 2013 report, data from 2010) suggests that 39% of all Catholics in the world live in Latin America (includes Mexico) and the Caribbean — a total of 425.49M people, or 72% of the population.

Argentina (Pope Francis’ birth country) had over 31M (31.02M) Catholics in 2010, making up nearly 77% (76.8%) of its population, and ranking #11 in countries with the largest Catholic population. The CIA Factbook’s updated figures for Jul 2014 indicating a total population for Argentina at 43.02M (#33 in the world), 92% of whom have a Roman Catholic background, but less than 20% of whom are actively practicing.

Pope Francis’ Ways, Beliefs, Mottos, Actions

Pope Francis is generally less formal than his predecessors in many aspects, and has made comments that while still in line with the Church, sometimes set him apart from his most recent predecessors. Many of his actions so far have proven to be quite humble.

  • He prepares his own meals.
  • Took a group selfie pic.
  • Has taken public transport pre-papacy.
  • Participated in a pro-life march in Rome in May 2013.
  • Instead of living in the papal apartments, he has picked a guesthouse.
  • Hugged a severely disfigured man and touched his face.
  • Washes the feet of prisoners, the disabled and others. He has washed the feet of some Muslim women.
  • Has dined with a group of 200 homeless people.
  • Has stated that there is no “Catholic” God, just God.
  • Dresses as a priest at times, to sneak out and serve the poor.
  • He wears less formal vestments and adornments, including not wearing the traditional red shoes that predecessor Benedict wore.

While there are far too many important world social issues that he has spoken about, some are included here.

  • Has eschewed the bulletproof “Popemobile,” indicating he did not have much to lose at his age. Instead he travels in a used car, sometimes a Ford Focus. He has encouraged clergy to travel in less fancy cars as well.
  • Suggested that Argentinians give money to the poor instead of spending it on travel to Rome to celebrate his papacy (he was born in Argentina).
  • Said that sex abuse is “as bad as performing a satanic mass” and “announced a zero-tolerance policy towards sex abuse in the Church.”
  • In an interview with La Vanguardia, about the economic impact of war, he said “We discard a whole generation to maintain an economic system that no longer endures, a system that to survive has to make war, as the big empires have always done. But since we cannot wage the Third World War, we make regional wars. And what does that mean? That we make and sell arms. And with that the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies — the big world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money — are obviously cleaned up.”
  • He has used Twitter to plead for peace in the Middle East.
  • He has “condemned persecution of religious minorities in Iraq, some victims Christian.”
  • Has said that “war and hatred cannot be carried out in the name of God.”
  • Believes that mercy begets mercy — that those who experience mercy are more inclined to give mercy.
  • Believes in defending the environment, not exploiting it.
  • He selected the name Francis after Saint Francis of Assisi, a man of peace and poverty.
  • He has spoken out against poverty and said “extreme poverty and unjust economic structures that cause great inequalities are violations of human rights.” He had stated in 2007 (at a meeting of Latin American bishops) that “poverty had not been reduced, and asked for a better income distribution.”
  • He speaks on behalf of the poor without being a supporter of Liberation Theology.
  • He has said that the fact that there are about 75M unemployed youth (under age 25) in the world to be an atrocity. “We are excluding an entire generation to sustain a system that is not good. Our global economic system can’t take any more.”
  • He spoke during the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker: “What point have we come to? We do not get dignity from power or money or culture. We get dignity from work. Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person. Work, to use an image, ‘anoints’ with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God who has worked and still works, who always acts.” Pope Francis particularly pointed out societies where companies put profits about human life and dignity, the slave labor in garment and other factories, and more.
  • He finds women to be of “fundamental importance” in the Roman Catholic Church, although he “had ruled out the possibility of female priests,” emphasizing Pope John Paul II’s reiteration of the Church’s stance.
  • While he opposed same-sex marriage while Cardinal in Argentina and has said “homosexual practice is intrinsically immoral,” he has more recently said not to marginalize gay people, to treat them with love and respect.
  • About homosexual priests, he has “Who am I to judge,” in reference to homosexual priests who are “seeking the Lord in good faith? They shouldn’t be marginalized.”
  • He is opposed to abortion and contraception.
  • About sex before marriage: He married 20 couples in a Sep 2014 wedding ceremony — couples who were non-traditional, some who lived together, some who had already had children. Some reports mark this occasion as proof of change in the Catholic Church, to embrace more modern times, and others deny any such change.
  • About alien life, he has openly said that he would welcome aliens for baptism.
  • He has “cold-called” a number of people, including making a personal call in 2013 to the editor of La Repubblica, 90 year-old atheist Eugenio Scalfari, to honor the latter’s request for a meeting.

James Harding of the BBC recently wondered if Pope Francis is “the radical modernizer that progressives have hoped for or, rather, an orthodox priest with a ready smile and a knack for the outreach to the unexpected.” Eugenio Scalfari (mentioned above) said that Pope Francis is not a “doctrinal radical.” To the Pope himself, Scalfari said Francis is a revolutionary, not a reformist. Francis, despite his approachability, is still following the results of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which has been called the start of the “modern history of the Catholic Church.” One result of “Vatican II” is the Catholic Church’s effort to reach out to other religions. (Francis recited from the Muslim holy book the Koran/ Quran).

Other actions by Pope Francis to take note of:

  • He has opened up the Vatican’s finances for scrutiny and has invited experts to look and comment. Ernst and Young has been hired to audit as well.
  • He has been replacing members of the Curia assigned by his two predecessors Pope John II and Pope Benedict XVI in a manner that suggests a long-term change in the way the Catholic Church operates. One such appointment is of Bishop Blase Cupich in the United States to the position of the Archbishop in Chicago. The previous occupant of the post, Cardinal Francis George, was considerably conservative, had a hardline stance on several issues (abortion, same-sex marriage equality) and spoke harshly about being under a “pro-gay, pro-choice government” being “akin to living under Shariah (Muslim religious) law.” Cupich, by contrast, is already being referred to as “the American Pope Francis.”

How Francis Compares to Other Popes

Overall, Pope Francis is very humble though holy and tends towards the traditional on many issues. Yet believes everyone should be respected. His general stance on many controversial topics follows the Church’s stance, making him conservative. But within that conservatism, he has made efforts to be moderate, less doctrinal, by at least promoting tolerance of various marginalized or excluded groups. Overall has been more seemingly approachable as a religious leader. In a sense, he is promoting a more open Church without being liberal per se. His impact also reaches out to people of all faiths

Whatever he is doing, it seems to having an effect. Over 6.6M (6.623M) people have participated in “various encounters” (private and public) with Pope Francis since his election to the papacy on Mar 13, 2013. This is almost three times the estimated number of first-year (2005) visitors that Pope Benedict had (roughly 2.3M). These are Vatican visitor counts, only. Pope Francis also had an estimated 3.7M attendees in Rio de Janeiro on World Youth Day in 2013, though other estimates suggest about half that — meaning that Francis has been viewed in person by between 8.4M to 10.3M people in his first year in the papacy.

How American Catholics See Pope Francis

Pew Research Center recently surveyed 1,821 adults, aged 18 or older, in all 50 U.S. states and D.C. on their thoughts about Pope Francis. Here are some highlights from the survey, conducted between Feb 14-23, 2014. (Note: only 351 adults surveyed were Catholic, making for a higher margin of error for this group’s responses.)

  • Roughly one year after Pope Francis’s rise to the pontificate, he is viewed quite favorably by American Catholics. His favorability has fluctuated a little, dropping from a net of 84% (Mostly or Very favorable) in Mar 2013 to 79% in Sep 2013, he climbed to 85% in this 2014 survey.
  • About 71% American Catholics think that Pope Francis “represents a major change in direction for the church,” compared to 23% who do not think so. The remaining 6% either did not know or did not respond. Of surveyed Catholics, 68% felt the change is positive.
  • 56% of surveyed non-Catholics also felt that Pope Francis represents a major change, compared to 20% who did not think so. The remaining 24% either did not know or did not respond. 51% of surveyed non-Catholics felt the change is positive.
  • Overall, most people who think Pope Francis represents a major change in the Catholic Church’s direction felt it to be a positive change.
  • By comparison, Pope John Paul II had favorability percentages of 91% (1987), 93% (1990) and 93% (1996).
  • Pope Benedict’s highest favorability was 83% (2008). Benedict started low at 67% in 2005, rising to 83% (Apr 2008), the dropping to 74% (Feb 2013) before his resignation.

In the U.S. at least, Pope Francis’ popularity has not yet displayed a “Francis effect” whereby more Americans identify as active Catholics. There are no figures as of yet to show this. However, survey results show some positive changes amongst American Catholics over the approximately one year since Pope Francis’ papacy began.

  • 26% of Catholics surveyed are “more excited” about their faith in the past year (compared to 10% who are less so).
  • 40% have been praying more frequently in the past year (compared to 8% praying less often).
  • 21% are reading religious texts (including the Bible) more often (compared to 14% who are reading less).

The responses above were to questions not directly tied to Pope Francis’ papacy. Questions specifically about Francis showed favorability for him. Questions specifically about the Catholic Church showed some positive viewpoints, albeit over such a long timeframe as to still come across pessimistic for the short-term.

  • Percentage who believe the Catholic Church will “definitely/ probably” allow priests to marry by 2050 rose to 51% in Feb 2014, from 39% in Mar 2013.
  • 42% in Feb 2014 and 37% in Mar 2013 felt the Church will “definitely/ probably” allow women to be priests by 2050.
  • 36% (Feb 2014) felt the Church will “definitely/ probably” recognize same-sex marriages by 2050. (Data for 2013 not yet available.)
  • In the Mar 2013 survey, 70% said the sex abuse scandal should be top priority.

Overall, Pope Francis has had an increasing favorability amongst the general U.S. population: 57% in Mar 2013, 58% in Sep 2013, and 66% in Feb 2014. His highest marks are a tie at 81% both for “Spreading the Catholic faith” and “Standing for traditional moral values.” He received an “excellent/ good job” from 76% of surveyed U.S. Catholics for “Addressing needs/ concerns of poor,” 62% for “Reforming the Vatican bureaucracy,” 54% for “Addressing sex abuse scandal” (over which Pope Benedict resigned), and 50% in “Addressing the priest shortage”. It has been remarked that the latter could be resolved by either or both of allowing priests to marry or allowing female priests.

However favorably Pope Francis might be looked at currently, especially by American Catholics, there are the right-wing members who have slung all sorts of negative comparisons at him. Extreme conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh have compared Francis commentary about jobs and the economy and capitalism to “pure Marxism.” So he has his detractors, and despite trying to reach out to many groups, has his work of appeasing as many people as possible cut out for him.


Some information for this article is sourced from the following Web sites and pages.

  1. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/2/pope-draws-6-6-millionpeopletovaticanin2013.html
  2. http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/pope-francis-dignity-labor
  3. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29459131
  4. http://cara.georgetown.edu/caraservices/requestedchurchstats.html
  5. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ar.html
  6. http://fortune.com/2014/03/20/fortune-ranks-the-worlds-50-greatest-leaders/
  7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/06/pope-francis-most-controversial-quotes_n_4032665.html
  8. http://www.latintimes.com/pope-francis-talks-global-economy-unemployment-and-role-war-181768
  9. http://www.news.va/en/news/more-than-six-million-six-hundred-thousand-faithfu
  10. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/03/13/conclave-elects-pope-francis/
  11. http://www.pewforum.org/2014/03/06/catholics-view-pope-francis-as-a-change-for-the-better/
  12. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/24/papal-saints-once-a-given-now-extremely-rare/
  13. http://www.policymic.com/articles/77627/popenomics-debunks-everything-the-gop-told-us-about-capitalism
  14. http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2013/07/29/2373211/pope-gay-priests/
  15. http://thinkprogress.org/home/2014/09/21/3570151/ope-francis-just-named-a-new-archbishop-of-chicago-heres-why-you-should-care/