After several hundreds of years, the worldwide Catholic community has a Pontiff born outside Europe. Pope Francis, also the first Pope from the Society of Jesus, was born in Argentina. Since his early years serving the church, the Pope has shown an independence of mind and a determination to erase some of the stains that have been caused over centuries by those claiming to speak in the name of Jesus Christ, but who by their actions went wholly contrary to the precepts taught by Jesus. For years, there had been complaints of sexual molestation by members of the clergy in several countries, yet it was only since Francis ascended to the Papacy that a heartfelt apology was made to the victims of predators in clerical garb. Action was taken against many priests, including not just dismissal from the church but even in some instances, prosecution. Those who are venerated by society as having given their lives to the service of the Divine Power need to be held accountable to a much higher standard than the laity, and from the start of his tenure as Sovereign of the Vatican and spiritual leader of the worldwide Catholic community, this is what Pope Francis has done. From his early years of service in Argentina, a country then suffering under a brutal dictatorship, Father (and later Bishop and Cardinal) Jorge Mario Bergoglio sought to free his flock from falling into the sin of religious and racial supremacy. All of humanity, no matter what one’s appearance or income or country of citizenship, should be placed on a horizontal line. Much of the travails of the world are caused by the actions of supremacists, a category that should perhaps include those who see themselves as special simply because there are several more zeroes in their bank accounts than is the case with most others. What ought to count is not a hoard of individual wealth, but how that gets used in the welfare of others.
The Catholic community has contributed substantially in matters such as health and education, a record that those of the faith can be proud of. There have of course also been transgressions, sometimes egregious ones, that have ignored and flouted the commandments set out in the texts for humanity to follow. In South America, Spanish conquistadors entered upon a spree of looting and killing, justifying such actions by the claim that the people and civilisations affected, such as the Inca and the Aztec, were “primitive” and hence needed to be erased from the earth. Both in South as well as in North America, those who were native to the territories conquered were often dealt with fatally. Passengers on the Mayflower who were bound for America came to escape servitude to the English Crown, yet they imposed that and worse on those already living in the territories the pilgrims settled in. A faith needs to be followed not just in routines such as prayer, but in lifestyles and in the treatment of other human beings. As an example, a lot of the history of the sufferings of the people of Goa at the hands of Portuguese fortune hunters has been obscured, but much remains in memory and records. Whether it be the depredations of the Spanish in South America or the Portuguese in Goa (not to mention other locations in South America and Africa), the historical record of the atrocities committed in such places must be understood in a manner that ensures that the world moves away from anger and hate to friendship. People must behave in a manner that brings human beings of different persuasions closer together, rather than push them further apart. Being abusive about another faith is hardly the way of demonstrating the good in one’s own. What is needed is for each individual belonging to a particular faith to set an example in munificence, and to work for the empowerment rather than the enslavement of others. Pope Francis, who has done much to bring those of different faiths together in love and hope, may consider offering prayers and expressing sorrow at the evils done in the past by some who belonged to the great faith he leads. Such a move would help in healing wounds caused by the cruelties of the past, and better enable humanity to move forward together towards a shared and peaceful destiny.