Something strange is happening in Italy. The name Francesco has leapt forward to number one for new-born baby boys, Rome is being swamped by a distinctively Latin American cadre of tourists, and most excitingly for the clergy, Sunday church attendance numbers are swelling.
Much as they might all be thanking God for the departure of Silvio Burlesconi from office, the timing seems much closer to the arrival of the new Pope Francis I, and the wave of positivity towards the Catholic Church that his humble, open hearted approach has engendered.
This is far from simple media hype or a general 'honeymoon-period' often experienced by new incoming politicians. Italy's Centre for Studies on New Religions reported on 10 November that 250 surveyed priests reported a significant attendance bump since the ascension of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the Holy See.
Massimo Introvigne, the Centre's director and professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome is quoted as saying: "If we project these findings nationally, and if half of the parishes have been touched by the Francis effect, then we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people returning to the churches."
Polling among individuals in Italy reveals a similar result. Polling firm Opinioni on 11 November asked Italians to rate 21 of the most prominent figures in Italy at the present time (sportspeople, statesmen, performers, businesspeople, television presenters etc) and place them in categories of 'extremely positive', 'positive', 'neutral', 'negative', and 'extremely negative'. Eighty-two per cent of respondents rated the Pope in one of the top two categories, massively outperforming all other figures involved.
But it isn't just in Italy that this wave of positivity in the Catholic Church is being felt. This tide of good feeling and warmth has done enough to thaw over 900 years of frosty relations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew being the first Orthodox Christian Spiritual leader to attend an inaugural mass by a Roman Catholic Pope since 1054. A massive sea change in relations that will be further warmed up by Vladimir Putin's visit to the Vatican in late November of this year.
So where is all this coming from? What is it about this new Pope that is bringing so many more of the lapsed faithful back to plant themselves into the pews? And why are many more outside the Church now looking at Roman Christianity with a fondness, respect, and overall appreciation that had been absent during Pope Benedict XVI's reign. The answers serve both as a lesson and a warning to the Church at large.
The central reason appears to be Pope Francis's Christ-Like humility and sincerity. It's difficult to completely evade the pomp and ceremony of leading the world's single largest religious denomination, but since the Pope is the first to hail from the Jesuit order, he very firmly believes in the importance of being a man of his people. After all, how can he share in their passions and pain if he is not a part of their world in some small way. This is equally something he won't tolerate others in his command flouting, and has already temporarily expelled one German bishop from his diocese after plans for the construction of a $31 million US residency complex were revealed.
And if the Pope can't shed all the trappings of office, he can certainly reach through them to touch the lives of those who might be society's most downtrodden, as he did at the beginning of his premiership by making one of his first acts a visit to a youth detention centre where he washed the prisoners feet, and recently while blessing a man whose body was covered in tumours resulting from neurofibromatosis. He has even on occasion made unexpected phone calls to individual believers, simply to offer them his encouragement and blessings.
In one of his tweets, Pope Francis said: "True power is service. The pope must serve all people, especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable." This not only means reaching out to all people, but also to dealing with all concerns. Pope Francis has already made statements to try and encourage the Church to move away from focusing on homosexuality and abortion as the central 'Christian' policy issues to confront, and the Vatican's Ambassador (Apostolic Nuncio) to the US recently addressed a bishop's conference where he compelled attendees to be more fatherly rather than adherents to a particular ideology.
But there is a danger in eschewing too much ideology, a danger that after reading certain parts of the Bible, Pope Francis should be very familiar with. Solomon learned to great pains the problems of attempting to incorporate other beliefs within his own. And while Pope Francis has clearly not let others hold sway within the Vatican, he has fairly clearly moved to suggest that the gates of heaven are wider than the Bible might have said. In mid September of 2013, he made the announcement that non-believers would be forgiven by God if they followed their conscience. This seems to fly in the face of verses where Jesus makes statements such as John 3:16, "Whoever believes in me shall not perish but have eternal life," and John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Also, the idea of each of us following our own individual consciences is not a new one. The Bible describes the licentiousness of ancient Israel where it says in Judges 21:25, "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes."
One commentator, Rod Draher, from Time magazine recently summarised this problem with the Pope's direction in the following two paragraphs.
"In his interview, the Pope used a metaphor for the Church that is often employed by Eastern Orthodox Christianity: he called it a 'field hospital' where the walking wounded can receive treatment. He's right, but it's important to discern the nature of the cure on offer. Anaesthesia is a kind of medicine that masks the pain, but it's not the kind of medicine that heals the underlying sickness."
It is a very attractive proposition to believe that everyone and anyone can go to heaven, but is it really a Biblical proposition? Pope Francis's rule so far has much to teach the wider church. Acceptance, sincerity, integrity, humility. All these things are values that we can see the palpable effects of when applied from a position of great authority. We must cherish these further and demand more frequently from our leaders. Rich American televangelists are too often what people think of when they imagine Christian figures of influence. But we must also be wary that we always move to honour God and love others, and do not deprive them of the truths we all so sorely need.