A DOWN-HOME KIND OF POPE

It’s not totally silent and righteous at the doors of the church. You can also catch laughter, see groups of people, and overhear more or less heated discussions. When Pope Francis speaks, he can fire up even the most reticent of Catholics.

The Pontiff’s latest words are the talk of the town among those who are waiting to enter eight o’clock mass here. A few days ago, Pope Francis confessed that he had “never” been conservative, and that the Church cannot continue to dwell on abortion and homosexuality. You can still feel the echo of those declarations here in the Church of San Francisco of Borja, located one of Madrid’s poshest neighborhoods.

María del Carmen Aranda and her husband, Miguel Gómez, are going back and forth on the ideas posed by Pope Francis. They say that they like the Pope, but it’s pretty clear that they aren’t really falling into line with him. “I think it’s great that he wants to be more focused on the poor, but he can’t just ignore subjects like homosexuality and abortion, because no issues are more important than those that impact life and family.” And, “There has never been another Pope like John Paul II; he had so much charisma,” declares María del Carmen.

Her husband is bothered by the Pontiff’s assertion that he’s not a conservative, because, he says, “a pope should be above all that. If he’s not from the right, he must be from the left, or the center. And that might really bother a lot of people, including me.”

At the doors of the church, it is evident that Pope Francis has left no one indifferent. Catholics here agree that he speaks clearly, directly, and that everyone can understand him; therefore, everyone can also have an opinion. So says Rosa Pastor, who declares herself to be in favor of the Pope. “He’s much more straightforward than John Paul II or Benedict XVI, who were quite intellectual. He gets to the point and speaks more to the people. I know that he’s going to bring about positive change in the Church,” she adds.

Lupina Iturriaga joins the discussion to support this thesis. “I like this Pope’s message much more than what Benedict had to say. It’s about time we start focusing on the important things. Also, you can’t just marginalize homosexuals.”

RICH NEIGHBORHOOD AND POOR NEIGHBORHOOD, UNITED BY POPE FRANCIS

Lourdes Espejo and Juan González can’t participate in that debate. They attend mass in San Blas, one of Madrid’s working-class neighborhoods. Their opinions, nonetheless, are similar to those of churchgoers in the wealthier area: “He’s extroverted, not as intellectual as prior Popes. Let’s say that he’s a down-home kind of pope.”

In San Blas, Catholics are also getting together before mass to discuss Pope Francis. They emphasize that he has shown some signs of having a less conservative mentality—of being “more liberal,” some say, on social and moral issues.

The main difference between here and the upper-class neighborhood is that those who go to mass at the Church of the Incarnation in San Blas are older. They greet each other; everyone know’s everbody’s name. Esther Vicente is among the youngest. She’s 63, and she supports Pope Francis’s social message. Above all, she values his intention to “heal the wounds” of gays and divorcees.

She believes that the Catholic Church was getting “out of touch,” that it no longer connected with young people. For that reason, she thinks the new Pontiff will bring a necessary breath of fresh air. “But I’m afraid that the ecclesiastical hierarchy won’t let him really undertake the liberalization he seeks.

THE CHURCH AND THE GOVERNMENT, NOT QUITE THERE YET

In Spain, the church bureaucracy has indeed shown reluctance to speak about the new Pope. When it does comment, its position is not as clear as that of churchgoers on the street.

HuffPost Spain reached out to the Episcopal Conference (la Conferencia Episcopal), headed by the conservative Antonio María Rouco Varela, but it declined to comment, saying that the institution does not make statements about the pope. The Conference’s spokesperson, Juan Antonio Martínez Camino, said only that: “As Catholics, we are always with the Pope, whoever he may be.”

The position within the ruling conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) in Spain is similar. Minister of the Interior Jorge Fernández Díaz, an avowed anti-abortion Catholic, said that he will “always” agree with the Pope, because it is he who “interprets the gospel.”

The Minister of Justice, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, who is currently working on a restrictive anti-abortion law, said he wasn’t clear about the Pope’s position on that particular issue (the Pope has said, “It’s not necessary to talk about these things nonstop”) and noted that the view of the Vatican has “never been a determinant” of the government’s “legislative work.”

As with most sectors in Spain, where 72 percent of the population defines itself as Catholic (41 percent practicing) according to the latest Barometer Report from the Center for Sociological Investigation, religion is very present in the Executive. Its financial support to the Church has barely decreased in recent years, despite other across-the-board cutbacks. According to the 2014 General Budget Project, the state guarantees the institution a minimum contribution of 249.2 million euros

In addition, religion is taught in Spanish public schools, though students who don’t want to take the course can elect an alternative called Social or Cultural Values or Ethical Values.

“THERE’S NO VARIATION”

Although the Episcopal Conference refused to comment on the Pope’s social message, Jesús de las Heras, head priest at the magazine Ecclesia, a publication of the Conference, did speak on his own behalf. He says he did it to clarify that Pope Francis, “hasn’t invented anything new.”

"In terms of substance, there’s no variation between the messages of the various popes. There can’t be,” he said, before acknowledging that Pope Francis is putting “a special accent” on showing “that the Church needs to be with the poor.”

Alex Rosal, director of the website Religión en Libertad, who has also worked for the Episcopal Conferencia, agrees. “The difference with other Pontiffs is a style of communication through gestures, which don’t need a sermon to be interpreted.” As an example he puts forward the fact that in Argentina the Pope refused to live in the apartments designated for bishops, has rejected ostentatious cars, and “has made sure to receive the poor and keep them close.

Nor does Rosal think that there’s anything novel in the Pope’s attitude toward homosexuals, about which Francis has said, “If a person is gay, seeks Jesus, and has a good heart, who am I to judge him?”

"That phrase is rooted in the spirit of the Gospel, when Christ himself said, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged yourself.’ It’s a very well-known principle in the Church,” he explains. That’s why he firmly states that “there’s no indication that Pope Francis will vary from Church doctrine.

A HOPEFUL CATHOLIC BASE

Not everyone in the Church thinks that way. The Catholic base, always combative with ecclesiastical power and very critical of Pope Benedict XVI, is clear that it has great expectations for the new Pope. “He’s of the belief that the church isn’t just an opiate for the people, and has given renewed visibility to the poor, who are the fundamental subject in the life and death of Jesus,” explains Evaristo Villar, spokesperson (and priest) for the Christian Networks (Redes Cristianas).

In his opinion, this kind of church is capable of giving a “message of hope” to a disenchanted world, but underlines that he hopes for still more. In his opinion, some of Pope Francis’s messages fall a bit short.

"There is definitely a difference from other Popes, but he still hasn’t made much reference to environmental problems, for example. We are also still hoping to hear the key phrase, ‘In the Church we’re all equals, whatever our orientation, whether we’re men or women, whether we’re divorced or not. We all have the same dignity.’”

“IT’S ALL A FACADE”

As might be expected, Spanish atheists are much harsher in their criticism of Francis, asserting that the Pope is only executing “cosmetic” changes that are “all facade,” but that really “change nothing.”

Albert Riba, president of the Atheists and Freethinkers Union, says that the Church “has been saying that it’s going to help the poor for 2,000 years, and it’s never yet done it.” As such, he encourages the Pope to go beyond words to put all the resources of the Catholic Church into service for the poor.

“The Pope’s strategy is clear: to try to move forward. It’s the only thing he can do if he wants religion to continue being a big, powerful lie.”

This piece was translated from Spanish and originally appeared on HuffPost Spain.

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