Teflon Pope

by Juan L. Mercado

“Listen. You can not be  neutral about human pain. I responded in that way. That’s how I felt.”

That’ is Pope Francis responding to an aide who suggested he take off a ribbon given by relatives of 300  victims in the Korean ferry disaster which he wore during mass. “It is better to remove the ribbon. You should be neutral.’

On his  flight  back  from Korea,  Pope Francis told journalists aboard the papal plane  how he copes with  rock star  popularity. “(This ) will not last forever, he smiled, adding: “Two or three years, and then to the house of the Father.”— an  indication that he thinks  he may  stay  on the chair of Peter further only  briefly.

Francis did not duck questions on retirement. That’d make him  the second pope to retire in over 600 years, following the resignation of  Benedict XIV, “The emeritus pope is already an institution because our life gets longer. At  a certain age, there isn’t the capacity to govern well because one’s health is not good.  Benedict made this gesture of emeritus popes.  Some theologian may say this is not right. The centuries will tell us if this so or not. Let’s see.

But if at some time,  I  could not go forward, I would pray, but  do the same, he added. “Benedict opened a door that is institutional, not exceptional.”

South Korea, which marked  his debut in Asia, showed  once again he’s a “Teflon Pope”, wrote the Boston Globe’s John Allen”  There’s material to fuel more than one dispute but given the force of the pope’s personality, none of it sticks.

Several vintage Francis touches worked their charm, such as taking a budget Kia version of the Popemobile. He rode  an ordinary train compartment from one venue to another. Even non-Catholics and atheists snapped up a popular Korean collection of 100 sayings by Francis, a papal version of the Analects of Confucius.

South Korea  has a rambunctious political culture. Several constituencies under other circumstances, will push back.  Korean Evangelicals hold a stereotypical Protestant objections to the Church, such as complaints about overemphasis on the Virgin Mary and  papacy.

Some are irritated about using government funds to subsidize papal visit event. But will they speak out?  “Definitely not,” a pastor  said. “This pope is too popular.”

A  master Buddhist monk complained about a Saturday ceremony in which Francis beatified 124 Catholic martyrs from the 18th and 19th centuries.“Many Buddhists risked their lives to save Christians in that time, but now the Church wants to forget this part of the story,” he groused .

Has this given him a negative view of the pope? “Not at all,” he said, pointing out that he’s written a glowing foreword to a Korean book about Francis,  “The simplicity  Francis  projects resonates well with Buddhists.”

The same point applies to dissident voices within the Catholic fold. They criticized the pope’s stop at a Catholic charitable facility called Kkottongnae, which houses 5,000 sick and disabled people. The founder,  Rev. John Oh has  been dogged over the years by corruption scandals

“Yet after watching the pope so obviously moved there, ignoring the clock as he embraced scores of sick and disabled children, no one really felt like dredging up a debate over the center’s leadership,” Allen adds.  It was vintage Francis: dealing with a potential controversy by shifting the focus to something more fundamental.

Families of the shipwreck victims  wanted Francis to press the government over their demand for an independent criminal probe, Yet the pontiff reached out to the families in so many other ways, including baptizing one of them, they seemed elated rather than disappointed.

Given his magnetism, Francis always seems to get the benefit of the doubt. On his fifth day  for instance, young people were invited to ask him questions. He ducked the most provocative one, on China, yet still won kudos for his candor.

The South Korea trip has brought several flashes of Francis’ commitment to the “Social Gospel”. He has argued that the Social Gospel actually should be the heart of the Church’s missionary activity,  In other contexts, that might seem merely a beguiling theological assertion. In South Korea, however,it is shown in  documented Catholic growth

In 2008, the church’s share of the Korean population broke the 10-percent threshold, and is increasing at an annual clip of about 3 percent. In 1950, the country’s total Catholic population was just 156,000, but by 1990 it had reached 2.4 million. Today, it stands at 5.4 million.

Strong lay leadership also plays a role, as does the legacy of martyrdom. Some observers believe that what looks like Catholic growth is actually part of a broader religious stirring in South Korea, “a rising tide that’s lifting all boats.”

Perhaps the ultimate proof of his appeal is this: Outside the hotel hosting the media center for the visit, a subtle yet determined pimp has worked the sidewalk each night in an effort to entice visitors to hire a call girl. When he approached me late Friday — for the record, unsuccessfully — I asked if he was aware that people traveling with the pope are lodged there.

Presumably this guy is no fan of Catholic sexual morality, but he still volunteered that he likes Francis because, as he put it, “He doesn’t judge.”

What South Korea illustrates, therefore, is that Francis’s Teflon coating isn’t just a Western or Latin American artifact, but part of his global brand. It may not dissolve the objections some have to Catholicism, but it seems to persuade them the problem isn’t because of the pope — it’s in spite of him.

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