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Kissing sick men, posing for selfies: Pope Francis marks one year in office

Pope kissing the foot of a Catholic faithful. [PHOTOS: AP/AFP]

By Martin Mutua                        

Rome: As Pope Francis marks his one year in office as the head of the over 1.2 billion Catholic faithful, he is already being credited with having brought a major change whose effects might be felt in the church long after he is gone.

Having been picked from Argentina, the then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who headed the Buenos Aires  Archdiocese, was the silent front runner for the top seat, although none of the media fraternity paid him any attention.

In the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, Bergoglio had been among the frontrunners for the seat. He received significant votes from the cardinals before he pleaded with them not to vote for him, a move that led to the election of Benedict.

But as fate and history would have it, Pope Francis now sits in the top position in the Church in a unique way – his predecessor, who resigned due to what he cited as health problems, is still alive.

Pope Benedict, now Emeritus, lives a few hundred metres away from his successor in his own quarters at the Vatican. Church sources say the two see each other from time to time to either share a meal or discuss Church matters behind closed doors.

Critical decisions

“It’s like having a venerable grandfather around,” Pope Francis once said. He has always played down the possibility that there might be unwanted interference from his predecessor who stepped down suddenly – unprecedented in modern times – a year ago.

In Nairobi, the new Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya, Archbishop Charles Balvo, hosted a luncheon in honour of Pope Francis to mark his first year in office.

The luncheon was attended by, among others, Catholic bishops led by John Cardinal Njue, top Government officials and diplomats.

As he marks his first year in office, the most critical decision that Pope Francis was able to make was with regard to the finances at the Vatican as well as investigations into the controversial Vatican Bank, which is the custodian of all Church funds around the world.

In a bold move, the Pope appointed a Cardinal from outside Italy, Australia’s George Cardinal Pell, to set up a new Vatican ministry of economic affairs to co-ordinate future financial activities at the Holy See.

And as he celebrated his one year anniversary on Thursday, it is evident that Pope Francis has won the hearts of millions of people – both Catholic and non-Catholic – around the world owing to his style of leadership.

Soon after being elected, he chose the name Francis after St Francis of Assisi, who is viewed by Catholic faithful as the champion of the poor and the downtrodden in society.

The admiration of Pope Francis by the millions around the world arises out of his openness, his refusal to be lured into the trappings of papal power both inside and outside the Vatican and, more interestingly, his decision to climb down from the papal palace where his predecessors have lived.

Modest house

He instead shares a modest guest house with other Vatican clerics.

According to Vatican insiders, the guest house, which has become his permanent home, has an interesting history in that it was built at the end of the 19th century as a quarantine station for potential victims of a feared cholera epidemic in Rome.

However, the plague never struck Rome and the Casa Santa Marta, as the guest house is known, was used for years as a sort of hospital for Rome’s poor. It later became an important World War II allied spy centre during the Nazi occupation of Rome.

According to the Vatican, both American and British envoys to the Holy See lived there and sent their reports to their respective countries using the Vatican’s private diplomatic bag.

And during his first appointment of new cardinals to the Church last month, Pope Francis picked some clergymen viewed as coming from countries with a high poverty index.

Commenting last month on the clergy named by Francis, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi highlighted the geographical range and diversity of the countries they come from.

“The choice of cardinals from Burkina Faso and Haiti shows concern for people struck by poverty,” he is quoted as saying by Vatican Radio.

Whereas Pope Francis has been able to grab headlines around the world and was even picked by Time Magazine as the 2013 Person of the Year, he abhors the superstar status he has been accorded by the media.

“Painting me as a sort of superman, a kind of star, I find offensive,” he told the editor of Italy’s leading daily newspaper. “I am a man who laughs, cries, sleeps quietly, and has friends, just like everyone else. A normal person.”

He also prays a lot, and makes decisions only after profound reflection. He has admitted making “many mistakes” during his long ecclesiastical career. Last month, the Pope announced a major extra ordinary synod of bishops that will congregate at the Vatican in October to deliberate over the institution of the family.

Pope Francis has also sent out a 39-page questionnaire to all bishops around the world for ordinary Catholics to fill out about how they understand and practise Church teachings on marriage, sex and other issues related to family.

The results will be discussed at the synod.