Opinion

In Pope Francis, the world has a revolutionary leader who shows how change is possible

07 April 2019 - 00:02


It is convention that only queens and princesses are allowed to wear white when they meet the pope. I happened to wear white the day Pope Francis arrived in Rabat, Morocco, for a two-day visit last weekend. I was not actually going to meet him and I also didn't think he was the type of person who would care even if I turned up in a white cassock just like his.
The welcoming ceremony hosted by King Mohammed VI was held at an open-air esplanade outside the 12th-century Hassan tower mosque. With 12,000 people attending the event, our group of African and Latin American journalists had to get to our seats hours before the pope and the king arrived.
It rained solidly throughout the afternoon. There was nothing to do except get wet.
The king's security prohibits phones, cameras or any other device that can capture his image so it was not even possible to tweet about my misery.
White clothing, it turns out, is not advisable for encounters with the pope - not if it's going to get sodden and reveal the black underwear beneath.
The Moroccans, mercifully, were unbothered by my unintentional indecency - all the king's horses and all the king's men were equally drenched.
I have been enamoured of Pope Francis from the moment he appeared on the balcony of St Peter's in March 2013.
His first act as pope was humble and endearing: he bowed his head and asked the world to pray for him. Since then, he has become one of the most influential people in the world, confronting global issues and charming people with his lack of pretension and empathy for the vulnerable.
So I jumped at the chance to travel across the continent to see him.
This was an extraordinary papal visit as Morocco's population is 99% Muslim and the 30,000 Catholics in the country are mostly immigrants.
The pope was not there just to tend his flock. Together with King Mohammed, who is deemed "commander of the faithful" in the Muslim world, he encouraged religious coexistence, spoke against fanaticism and extremism, and promoted compassion towards immigrants and refugees.
In my wet, bedraggled state, it was difficult to appreciate the weight of the moment.
At Rabat's St Peter's Cathedral the next day, I was standing on a balcony above the altar and could see the smile lines on the pope's face and his eyes light up as four small children got restless and bounded up the stairs to him.
There is something innately good that draws people across all ages and faiths to him.
There are some really terrible political leaders in the world, people who hold the future of humanity in their hands. Daily, their words and deeds intensify economic injustice, racism, violations of human rights, inequality and the destruction of the planet.
In a month from now, our choice as voters will be which of our leaders will be least objectionable and dangerous to our future.
It is rare to come across leaders who are truthful, who take responsibility for the mess around them, and who point the way in this time of gloom.
Francis took leadership of the world's 1.3-billion Catholics at a time the shame of sex abuse in the church had exploded. Instead of continuing to downplay the issue and try to cover up the scandal, he forced the church to confront it.
For the first time, bishops and cardinals have been exposed as perpetrators and collaborators in the abuse, and have been defrocked and charged.
By pulling away the shroud of secrecy, the pope has allowed the pain of the victims to be acknowledged, and he has made the effort to meet and apologise to some of them.
His new protocols on the mandatory reporting of abuse have shaken the foundations of the church. But this also heightened the onslaught against him by conservatives.
Francis has remained on course, reaching out to people far from the gilded halls of the Vatican and changing perspectives in one of the most traditional institutions in the world.
Just this week, he appointed Wilton Gregory of Atlanta as the new archbishop of Washington, placing him in line to become the first African-American cardinal in the US.
This is a bold move on President Donald Trump's doorstep that will rile the conservative right-wing lobby that dominates the Catholic Church in the US.
Francis has also become a crusader against climate change and an advocate for a societal overhaul that favours the needs of the poor and vulnerable over those of the rich and the powerful.
He has also been outspoken against corruption. In an interview with a Spanish publication recently, he said there were "merchants" and "hypocrites" in the Vatican, as there are everywhere.
"The Vatican City State is not saved from the limits and from the sins and shame of other societies . You have to clean up. The job is to clean, clean, clean."
Pope Francis has a definite aura that gives him rock-star status. But I also saw an ordinary old man, who walks with a limp, using the position bestowed upon him to effect change and inspire hope.

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