Liz O'Donnell: Francis's dignified actions are winning over sceptics
Many lapsed Catholics have noted with approval the refreshing approach of the new pontiff since his election. Actions speak louder than a million words. From the very moment of his appointment, Pope Francis has demonstrated a willingness, indeed appetite, for visible change in how the Roman Catholic Church should be perceived and how it should respond to the modern world.
He is a Jesuit, which in my book is a great start. The long tradition of Jesuit priests as advocates of justice and human rights issues and against regressive regimes, particularly in the developing world, is instructive in this regard. As a Jesuit, this Pope is ideologically placed to champion fundamental human rights. Here in Ireland Jesuit schools have a deserved reputation for instilling in their pupils a commitment to intellectual excellence, public service and human rights and justice. My Jesuit-educated brother, now settled in Madrid, is a committed socialist and history teacher; his world-view informed by his education in Limerick's Crescent College.
Pope Francis is apparently determined to lead by example. His statements and actions from the beginning were to associate with and reach out to the poor. Visiting prisoners in Italian jails was an unprecedented act by a pontiff and was a pointed and biblical gesture that this Pope and Catholics should honour those otherwise slighted by society. Likewise, his refusal to conform to the elaborate trappings of the Vatican protocols as to residence and transport has raised a few eyebrows.
Next there was his surprise visit to refugee centres in the south of Italy. Highlighting the compassion due to these unfortunate migrants, who risk life and limb to escape poverty and war in Africa and the Middle East, was a highly political act. But, these are the issues that should occupy the attention of our religious and spiritual leaders, rather than what he has called the "obsessive" focus on the traditional battlegrounds of abortion, contraception and homosexuality.
The pathetic plight of refugees, drowning in choppy waters in desperate attempts to enter the European Union from Africa, presents a major moral and political challenge to European leaders. By reaching out to the dispossessed and desperate people involved, Pope Francis was demonstrating the original Christian message of kindness to the stranger.
Over 300 people drowned on October 3 when their boat sank offshore, and hundreds travel each day with regular tragedies turning these Mediterranean waters into a cemetery for migrants. This matter was on the EU leader's summit agenda last week but was eclipsed by the phoney diplomatic furore over spying. Despite 700 migrants being rescued off Lampedusa from two unseaworthy boats on the eve of the summit, the leaders have decided to long-finger a review of asylum policy for eight months, delegating the matter to justice ministers to look at short-term border control aspects.
This has to move beyond the remit of politics to the higher ground of morality and respect for human dignity. Fortress Europe is perhaps sustainable if there is adequate security resources deployed to keep them out. But securing the borders is to miss the point.
Many of these migrants are genuine refugees as defined under the Geneva Convention as fleeing persecution or war, and are therefore entitled to the protection of European countries. Conflicts in the Levant and beyond in Somalia and Eritrea trigger protection for refugees under international asylum law. Refugee flows are at an unprecedented level due to the political turmoil in north Africa and in particular the war in Syria.
The UN has declared over two million Syrian refugees internally displaced are out of the reach of humanitarian assistance. Inevitably they will take any exit route to survive. This is just as important as chemical weapon use, yet it receives only fleeting attention.
Clearly immigration is a neuralgic topic for Europe's political leaders. All states, including Ireland, are conservative about opening their borders beyond EU membership. Many even struggle with migration within the EU, as indicated by widespread resistance to the Roma. Few EU leaders are progressive on immigration and asylum. So the Pope's pointed identification with their plight is significant.
Most lapsed Catholics fell away from organised religion for political rather than spiritual reasons. The Irish Catholic Church contributed to this exodus by a lamentable collusion with and cover up of paedophile priests and a generalised lack of compassion for women, homosexuals and those who fell foul of its repressive rules around sexuality.
In another bold move, the pontiff has just suspended the German Bishop of Limburg for his "Borgia- like" extravagance in renovating his official residence to the tune of €31m, including a bath costing €15,000.
It is early days but Pope Francis may be a beacon for the lapsed to return.