Pope Francis and the Art of Joy
In the modern era, Europe has never had fewer practicing Christians. The United States, according to a Pew survey released this week, is trending in the same direction, led by millennials wary of pontifical certainty.
So why is Pope Francis smiling? For that matter, how did a 78-year-old man with only one working lung become perhaps the most radiant, powerful and humane figure on the global stage? It’s a paradox, but as much of the world has become less identified with organized religion, the leader of the most organized of religions is more popular than ever.
Whether he’s cleaning the feet of the homeless, dialing up strangers for late-night chats or convincing a self-described atheist like Raúl Castro to give a second look at the Catholic church, the pope who took the name of a nature-loving pauper is a transformative gust.
In advance of his visit to the United States later this year, Francis has a chance to move hearts and minds on a couple of intractable issues. He’s called out climate change skeptics and will soon unveil a major encyclical on the environment. Think about that: The church that put Galileo under house arrest for promoting sound science is now challenging the science deniers in power.
This puts him directly at odds with the Republican leadership, and the Koch brothers, who have funded a group that recently accused Pope Francis of “being misled by ‘experts’ at the United Nations.” Speaker John A. Boehner may find that he’s getting more than he bargained for, inviting the pope to become the first pontiff to speak before a joint session of Congress in September.
Francis’s predecessor, while a cardinal, once signed a letter saying homosexuality was “an objective disorder.” This pope would rather focus on the millions of poor clinging to a thin lifeline than talk about people’s sex lives. He speaks truth to power on Armenian genocide, on a Palestinian state, on the Islamic nihilists who behead people of other faiths.
But for all of that, something else explains why the world is so enamored of this pope. Long after we’ve forgotten what his position is on Catholic doctrine, we will remember the serenity of Pope Francis — his self-deprecating lightness of being.
His smile is just shy of goofy; it’s embracing, certainly not the tight facial clench of the seasoned diplomat. Rather than hide behind the trappings of power and empire, he projects a sense that he’s an average man who’s in on the joke. He’s the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. Anything he says is parsed and taken apart for larger meaning. And yet, he shrugs and laughs, the body language behind the most memorable line uttered by a pope in our time: “Who am I to judge?”
Just after he was named pope, in a gathering of the Vatican elite who had selected him, he looked at the thicket of clerical power and said, “May God forgive you for what you’ve done.” He smiled. They laughed. In March 2013, humor took up residence in the corridors of St. Peter’s Square, and has never left.
Shortly thereafter, a longtime acquaintance told Francis he hardly recognized the Jesuit known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio. What happened? The pope said that he was, indeed, a changed man, as John L. Allen recounts in his new book, “The Francis Miracle.” The pope said he was filled with “interior freedom and peace, and that sense has never left me.”
The surprise phone calls continue. He’s pope, he can call anyone he wants. Putin on Line 1. Obama on Line 2. Jay Z on hold. But a few weeks ago, he dialed up an Italian man, Franco Rabuffi, who was suffering from an illness. Rabuffi didn’t believe it was the pope and hung up. The pope called a second time, and again Rabuffi hung up. On the third time, they connected.
“I was speechless,” Rabuffi told the Vatican newspaper, “but Francis came to my rescue, saying what happened was funny.”
In March, the pope visited Naples, a wonderful city, its ancient warrens torn apart by mafia corruption and poverty. He challenged the violent Camorra, calling for an end to “the tears of the mothers of Naples.” In words that only a former bouncer could use, Papa Francesco said, “Corrupt society stinks.”
Last year, he was asked about his secret to happiness. He said slow down. Take time off. Live and let live. Don’t proselytize. Work for peace. Work at a job that offers basic human dignity. Don’t hold on to negative feelings. Move calmly through life. Enjoy art, books and playfulness.
Sadly, his reign may be less than five years in all, he predicted. As one orthodox cardinal told Mr. Allen, the author, “Bergoglio won’t be here forever, but we will.” Not true. The Vatican Spring of Pope Francis will outlive many a mortal in church vestments.
Castro praises pope for role in U.S. thaw
ROME — President Raúl Castro of Cuba visited Pope Francis at the Vatican on Sunday, praising the Argentine pontiff for helping to broker last year’s diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the United States while declaring that Francis had inspired him to consider returning to the Roman Catholic Church.
Francis and Mr. Castro met privately for nearly an hour on Sunday morning, speaking in Spanish, before the Cuban leader left the Vatican to meet with the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi. At a later news conference, Mr. Castro promised a warm welcome for Francis when he goes to Cuba in September before visiting the United States.
“I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction,” Mr. Castro said during the televised news conference. “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I’m not joking.”
In December, President Obama described Francis as a critical broker after announcing that the United States was resuming diplomatic ties with Cuba. Mr. Obama credited Francis as helping to jump-start the diplomacy with personal letters and also by allowing the Vatican to be used for a secret meeting between diplomats from both countries. Since then, Francis has announced he would also visit Cuba before his visit to the United States in the fall.
The Vatican and Cuba recently celebrated 80 years of diplomatic relations, and the Vatican had long opposed the United States’ sanctions against the island nation. Cuba’s Communist government had restricted religious worship and promoted atheism, but an opening came in 1996 when Mr. Castro’s brother, Fidel, the revolutionary leader and longtime president, visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican — a visit that John Paul reciprocated two years later with a trip to Cuba. Pope Benedict XVI also visited Cuba, in 2012. Cuban bishops have since received permits to build the first new church on the island since the 1959 revolution.
“I am from the Cuban Communist Party that doesn’t allow believers, but now we are allowing it,” Raúl Castro said during his news conference on Sunday. “It’s an important step.”
Mr. Castro made a reference to Cuba’s pending removal from the American government’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism. Mr. Obama has announced the move, and it is expected to become official this month after a 45-day period. Republicans in Congress recently said they would not seek to block it, but talks to restore diplomatic relations have slowed in part over the designation.
“Maybe the Senate will take us off the list of terrorist nations,” the Cuban leader said, apparently overlooking that members of Congress were not standing in the way of Mr. Obama’s order.
The Vatican released few specifics about the private meeting between Francis and Mr. Castro, other than to say that the two men met for more than 50 minutes and the mood was “very friendly.”
Correction: May 10, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated Matteo Renzi’s position. He is the prime minister of Italy, not its president.