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New Pope Gives Reason For Hope

Pope Francis | AP photo

New pope. New hope. New direction for the Catholic Church?

Why should we care? The 2012 Pontifical Yearbook says there are almost 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. And according to the 2010 Official Catholic Dictionary, 237,206 of them are here in Hawaii. They make up the largest religious denomination in the state. So this matters to a lot of people here.

I’m a former Catholic. I quit the church because I cannot agree with much of what it teaches. Yet I still find myself fascinated with the rituals of an institution that has endured for 2,000 years (the Apostle Peter is considered the first pope). But the strength of the church is also, in my opinion, its weakness. The Catholic Church does not see change as a virtue, even in a changing world. I believe change is good – and necessary.

Still, there are many “firsts” for Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina. The man who replaces Pope Benedict 16 is the first non-European and first Jesuit to be named pope. And the first to choose “Francis” for his papal name.

Significant? There are two saints named Francis. St. Francis Xavier was known for his evangelism. But most people associate the name with St. Francis of Assisi, a man who dedicated himself to poverty, humility and simplicity. Patron saint of animals. Patron saint of ecology. His mission was to “rebuild the Church.” According to AmericanCatholic.org, “Francis of Assisi was a poor little man who astounded and inspired the Church by taking the gospel literally – not in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following all that Jesus said and did, joyfully, without limit and without a sense of self-importance.”

Bergoglio practiced what the Bible preached. He lived the humble life even after being named cardinal. It’s fascinating and telling that he eschewed the luxurious bishop’s residence and chose instead to live in a small apartment. He gave up his chauffer and rode the bus. He cooked his own meals and visited the poor.

I do not agree with the Catholic Church’s doctrine on many issues, including its opposition to contraception, abortion, gay marriage and the role of women in the church hierarchy. The new Pope Francis is conservative on these teachings, and none of that is likely to change.

But he also is known to be a firm believer in human and social justice. He’s against discrimination. According to National Cathedral reporter John Allen, he visited a hospice in 2001 to kiss the feet of a dozen AIDS patients. He criticized priests who refused to baptize children born out of wedlock. He has said that extreme poverty is a violation of human rights. In other words, he stands by the doctrine but believes in the human.

In a time when the church is seen as increasingly out of step with people’s lives, when it is reeling from the impact of global sex abuse scandals, there’s no arguing that many Catholics are thirsting for a leader who can usher in much-needed accountability. They want a pontiff who will be more responsive to people’s needs. This is where the new Pope Francis might very well make a difference.