Pope Francis, a champion for the poorest and the weakest

Stephanie Eisner

Pope Francis is old news. The former archbishop of Buenos Aires and cardinal since 2001 was elected to his position as head of the Catholic Church on March 13, while most students at UT were enjoying spring break.

If you didn’t care then and you don’t care now, you’re not alone. Religious affiliation is declining among younger generations. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that 32 percent of 18-29-year-olds were religiously unaffiliated, higher than any other age group studied. If you’re nodding your head  and about to turn the page, read on. Pope Francis has the power and potential to change your life, regardless of your religion.  

According to a 2011 universitywide poll, more UT students reported a spiritual preference of Roman Catholicism (18 percent) than any other religious category. In the United States alone, there are 7.8 million Catholics, a number that includes Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and six of our nine Supreme Court justices. The pope realistically could not command the actions of those affiliated with his religion even if he wanted to, but he does have the power to shape the dialogue and encourage certain ideas in his church, which in turn can affect legal policy for all of us. The impact may not seem directly tangible, but it’s real. 

The Catholic Church is known for liking the status quo. The election of Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the first ever Latino pope breaks a strong tradition of sticking to tradition — a centuries-long habit of appointing European clergy to the papacy. Joey Dominguez, a Plan II and biochemistry student who identifies as a Mexican-American Catholic, believes that the new pope brings to the Vatican the distinct “warmth of Latino culture.” Although he “loves all the popes,” Joey likes that Pope Francis is Latino “because [he himself is] Latino.”

UT history and religious studies Professor Virginia Garrard-Burnett reflected in a recent article for The New York Times that in the past 13 years, “The Catholic population of several Latin American countries — including Brazil, the largest Catholic nation in the world — has slipped by more than 20 percent.” She believes that “in Pope Francis … the Catholic Church may rediscover its competitive advantage.” 

Here’s one more thing: The current pope is emerging as a champion for women and the poor. On March 28, Pope Francis controversially washed the feet of women as well as men in the traditional Holy Week ceremony meant to commemorate the humility of Jesus. Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint whose name the pope adopted, was a man who renounced his worldly possessions and dedicated his life to serving and preaching to the lowest in society. The pope interpreted his role in his first homily as being to open his arms and protect “especially the poorest [and] the weakest.” 

When a pope has an audience of at least 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, small gestures toward equality can have a significant impact. 

Eisner is a public health sophomore from Houston.