Having two living Popes in the Vatican is a strange situation the world finds itself in today.
Well, actually one of them, Pope Benedict XVI, is retired, having made history in February this year by becoming the first pontiff to retire since Pope Gregory XII in 1415. But he retains his papal name, the “His Holiness” reference and the white colours in his dressing.
The other, Pope Francis I, is slowly but surely rewriting history and injecting new life into the solemn corridors of the Vatican, an enthusiasm that has spread to many corners of the world.
Like millions of youth around the world, Ms Merab Dinah Ochieng’, a human rights lecturer at Catholic University, Nairobi, has lived to see three Popes head the Catholic Church — starting with John Paul II who died in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis. But the last eight months have felt like a breath of fresh air.
“Pope Francis embodies what I have been looking for in a leader, especially in my church,” says Ms Ochieng’, who is in her 20s.
She is not surprised that Pope Francis, who only emerged eary this year, has caught everyone’s attention, non-Catholics included.
His papacy, which began in March, is clearly a legacy the church with over 1.5 billion followers needed in this age with so many distractions from spiritual warfare.
The life of the man from Argentina, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has touched hearts, with his simplicity and humility saying more than words could ever do.
He has been bold enough to openly talk about delicate subjects that his predecessors preferred to sidestep and for this he is basking in the glow of positive media.
Pope Francis sounds like a friend even when rebuking someone.
Take, for instance, his first letter to the Catholic community early this month in which he spelt out his vision. The Pope did not shy away from slamming capitalism as the new “idolatry”.
The Pope, who cares less about political or religious correctness, also turned to his “children” — the bishops, priests and nuns — who he told to open their missions to the needy instead of keeping themselves in enclosures.
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” wrote Pope Francis.
His letter Envagelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), an 84-page document, also had a message to the political class who neglect the people they lead, and he prayed for politicians to rise in their respective countries.
That Pope Francis is a reformer is something that is beginning to become more apparent.
Child abuse scandals have rocked churches in US and many other countries, giving the Catholic faith a bad name.
Instead of living in denial and burying his head in the sand, the Pope recognised the need to accept what went wrong. And early this month, he created a commission to help sex abuse victims.
Pope Francis also stunned the world last month during his weekly address at St Peter’s Square when he reached out to hug a man with a severely disfigured face.
Two weeks before, a photo of him kissing Vinicio Riva, a man suffering from neurofibromatosis — a growth covering the entire head — made rounds online.
It is these acts of charity and courage that are endearing the man, who once served as a bouncer at a bar in Buenos Aires, to many.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Fr Dr Sahaya Selvam, a lecturer at Tangaza College’s Institute of Youth Studies, Nairobi, says: “The Pope challenges me by his example in simplicity, humane approach to matters of morals. He is also aware of history,” says Fr Sahaya.
When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in February, it seemed like the Catholic Church was sinking in a crisis.
Paedophile cases among the clergy, corruption allegations in the Vatican, and a discredited stand on touchy issues like homosexuality, abortion, women clergy and marriage for priests, had led to a slump in church attendance and growing discontent.
By his death in 2005, John Paul II was the typical image of a Pope — loved, respected and adored.
Wherever he went he drew millions. The attention his death attracted can only be compared to that of South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela’s.
His successor, Pope Benedict VXI, was an intellectual and a Vatican insider. He failed to connect with the masses, and his papacy had ushered in complacency among the clergy and the congregation.
Enter the 266th Pope. When Pope Francis stepped out of the window after the legendary white smoke announced the conclave had elected a new leader in March, not many gave the little known Cardinal from Latin America a chance.
The first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years was inspired by St Francis of Assisi, who renounced his privileged background to live and work with the poor. That set the tone for his papacy.
So far he seems to have chosen his path, with the media branding the sense of renewal in the Catholic Church as the “Francis effect”. There are even suggestions of growing interest and attendance in the church.
And Pope Francis was this week named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” while Forbes has already listed him as the fourth most powerful person in the world this year. Top of the list were Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, followed by US president Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The top three are heads of strong economic and military super powers. The Pope’s constituency, the Vatican, does not even measure to the size of Nairobi County.
Taking the number five spot was the Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of the strongest economy in Europe. Computer software billionaire Bill Gates was sixth.
Without an economy to enforce tax collections or a military to bully the world, Pope Francis banks on one thing — his moral authority — that he has translated into symbols that connect with believers and sceptics alike.
In his home country Argentina, it is said that 12 per cent more people are defining themselves as religious compared to the period before the Pope took over in March.
Britain, one of the countries where apathy to religion has been growing, is reporting a rise in congregations attending church services and confessions.
With Pope Francis firmly in the driver’s seat, half of priests in Italy have noted a marked rise in support for the church with a recent opinion poll in the country, reporting this week that more than four in five Italians have a “positive” or “extremely positive” opinion of the Pope.
Spain, France, North America and Latin America have also reported growth in the numbers of churchgoing Catholics.
But Fr Sahaya Selvam of Nairobi says: “I am not too sure statistically if Catholics (are) coming back to church in big numbers,”
However, he says a growing number of adherents of other churches are getting “positively interested in Catholic heritage.”
Fr Sahaya knows a woman from a Pentecostal church who regularly attends his spiritual direction sessions.
“I came into contact with her when I had to direct her for an eight-day guided retreat. Silence was new to her, but she enjoys it,” the priest, who has a doctorate in psychology, says.
Fr Moses Wanjala, who teaches liturgy to seminarians studying theology, says: “Pope Francis has opened the Catholic Church and taken global spiritual leadership.
He does not impose himself as a leader for Catholics only but welcomes all denominations. And his encyclical letter is emphatic on his willingness to work with world religions.”
Fr Wanjala says the Pope is drawing larger crowds to his weekly papal addresses at St Peter’s Square because his message is simple and rhymes with people’s needs.
According to Italian media, 85,000 people are today reported to be attending his weekly addresses that he has dedicated to meeting disabled and ill people.
Pope Francis loves using symbols.
They drive his message deeper and this connects with masses around the world who now challenge their own priests to imitate the Pope.
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” asked the Pope, questioning the values of today’s world.
When he talks about living poor, he demonstrates it by carrying his own briefcase, refusing to sleep in luxurious papal apartments, driving in a simple car, and washing feet of female prisoners, among other things.
This man is not just a celebrity Pope; he is the new deal the Catholic Church has been waiting for since John Paul II.
But unlike John Paul II who was stern in his moral teachings, Pope Francis has refused to be judgemental.
He has instead launched a questionnaire where he asks ordinary people for their views on contraception, premarital sex, divorce and gay partnerships.
However, his formal document has remained guarded. He reiterated the earlier position that the church cannot ordain women or accept abortion.
On priesthood, he said, it “is not a question open to discussion” but said women must have more influence in Church leadership.
For Mr Dennis Mutuku, a youthful Christian who fellowships at Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi, “Francis is the Pope of the people”.
Mr Mutuku says Pope Francis has reached out to people who felt neglected by the church, governments and communities where they live.
And it is not just Catholics feeling that way. He says he has friends who are Muslims who say “Your Pope is a nice guy”.
Without mentioning the bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst whom Francis asked to step aside to be investigated for misusing church funds on his private residence, Mr Mutuku says, the Pope treats the people and clergy alike.
His broom has swept under his own bed, spiking at the corruption that has taken root in the Vatican Bank, suspending people who were said to be untouchables in the bank.
It is such messages that are striking a chord with ordinary people across the globe. Pope Francis’s leadership is not just a good example to men of the cloth, but also leaders in business, politics and academia.
On social media, Pope Francis is one of the most followed leaders.
His Twitter handle @pontifex currently has more than 10 million followers and it is translated into several languages. With Pope Francis, the Catholic Church can only brace itself for interesting times ahead.