ON my first tour of duty as a newsman in Northern Ireland I was sternly counselled to avoid three topics of conversation, however polite: Sport, Politics and Religion.
Back in the early 1970s, when I showed up in Belfast, The Province, Six Counties or Ulster – whatever term an indigenous inhabitant used to describe the region was usually a dead give-away to their ethnic origins – was a pretty wild place. And, though it might not have borne the wanton destruction of downtown Beirut, in parts it was nonetheless a war zone.
So, while I could well comprehend why politics and religion might be off-limits, I couldn’t get my thick head round the injunction to avoid all mention of sport. After all, that was the default topic of most fellas, the glue that joined us together over a pint in a convivial hostelry.
‘Kick sport into touch,’ explained my guide – himself a sportswriter – to the arcane ground rules that applied then. ‘For instance, what soccer team someone supports is usually an indicator of their political and religious affiliations, Proddy or Mick.’
Now, though Ulster/The Province/Six Counties may have been host to an example of extreme sectarianism, it did teach me the salutary lesson of treating certain subjects with kid gloves, however superficially innocent they may have first appeared.
All the same, part of my job is to air views some may find unpalatable – incendiary even – and be prepared to take whatever flak flies in their wake.
So, since it’s that time of year when talking-heads like me are expected to nominate their Man of the Year (MotY), without fear of favour, prejudice or prevarication, my award goes to Pope Francis I.
And, lest there should be any unforeseen misunderstandings, I single him out for non-religious reasons, especially since I’m not a Catholic.
I hasten to add, despite 2013 being an annus horribilis of likely candidates – you might say a veritable biblical famine in this context – the first non-European to wear the fisherman’s ring of St. Peter would have won my MotY vote anyway.
He became a smash hit from Day #1 of his papacy, when he ceased to be the anonymous Jesuit, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, and took the name Francis I, after his sainted hero, Francis of Assisi.
Radiating humility and genuine warmth, the 266th Bishop of Rome has swept through the Vatican like a Zonda, the blast of wind that whips off the Andes across the new Pope’s Argentine homeland, bringing welcome rains to the reinvigorate the arid pampas pastureland.
Figuratively, he’s imitating it – ridding the world’s fustiest institution of its cobwebs of conformity and initiating a renaissance of the essence of belief …compassion, understanding and respect for other faiths or others with no religious affiliation at all.
It’s transparent in Francis’s disdain for formality, the trappings of his office and crackdown on the old boy network, one of his first edicts being to abolish the €25,000 annual bonus paid to cardinals serving on the Board of Supervisors for the Vatican bank.
He smiles readily, has a quick wit and enjoys cracking jokes – a far cry from his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, a stern traditionalist and long-time Curia insider, before becoming only the second pontiff in 600 years to resign.
In stark contrast, Francis chooses to reside in a humble guest house, not the ornate apartments of the Apostolic Palace; he prefers simple vestments – as pointedly demonstrated after his election last March, when he refused to don the ritual red, ermine-trimmed mozzetta, opting instead a simple white cassock; his preferred mode transport is a second-hand Peugeot; and he’s sacked his bodyguards.
To me, then – albeit an outsider – Francis, the soccer and tango fan, is a People’s Pope, hewn from the ‘no frills’ mould of John Paul II, who also favoured modesty over decoration, right down to his Doc Marten boots.
However, unlike the Polish pontiff, the 76-year-old South American, born of Italian immigrant parents fleeing Mussolini’s fascism, seems less straightjacketed by doctrinaire conservatism – which may dismay some of his flock – as he emphasises more the church’s pastoral duty to tend the poor and marginalised.
His calls for world leaders to end Syria’s civil war and his highlighting of the plight of illegal African immigrants stranded on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa inspired the prestigious magazine, Foreign Policy, to name Francis as ‘the most impressive voice in the international arena.’
These initiatives echo his past in Argentina, when he opened up his cathedral to leaders of the Jewish, Muslim and Orthodox Christian communities and improved inter-faith dialogue.
The one criticism levelled at him then was his lack of vocal opposition to the military junta when thousands disappeared, victims of the armed services’ death squads in Argentina’s so-called ‘Dirty War’ between 1976 and 1983.
Artist and human rights activist, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980, said, ‘Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship.’
In defence of the man who was to become leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, former judge, Alicia Oliveira, recalled how Bergoglio helped people flee the repression and how he was ‘anguished’ and ‘very critical of the dictatorship.’
Now as Pope – at least for the time being – Francis hasn’t courted controversy over such thorny issues as contraception, abortion, homosexuality and the remarriage of divorcees. Surely, though, a time will come when he’ll be sorely tested on what many regard as pillars of their faith.
But, as Catholic writer, Cristina Odone, says, ‘It’s too early to predict whether students from Berkeley through Bristol to Brisbane will replace posters of Che Guevara in his beret with the Pope in his white skullcap. Too early to say whether Francis I is at the helm of a “Vatican spring” that will revolutionise the curia.
‘Already, though, I am so grateful to him for making “Catholic” a word that does not automatically conjure up thoughts of homophobia, sexism and paedophilia.’
Clearly, Pope Francis I is someone else’s MotY besides mine.