Pope Francis tames the wolf of Fleet Street

Pope Francis (CNS)

In the Lives of the Saints I used to read as a child in Rome, a lovely illustration always held my gaze. It was Italy’s patron saint, Francis of Assisi, a wolf at his feet, speaking to a bird. This, aged seven, was what I took to be an ideal Catholic: someone who embraced every living thing.

The childish image has come back to me now as I’ve been celebrating the six-month anniversary of Papa Francis. It’s nothing short of miraculous: we can now read the word “Catholic” in a headline and not see it automatically followed by the words “paedophile priest scandal”. We can now see “Pope” and not have to steel ourselves for some furious attack or cruel put-down.

How has Papa Francis managed this? It’s been six months of small signals and quiet words – a phone call here, a joke there, a small Renault to take him everywhere. Some papal messages have been gentle hints, others blaring trumpets.

The overall effect has been to restore the Church as an admirable and loveable presence on the world stage. As a result, we Catholics no longer need feel ashamed of what our priests did and how our Church dealt with them.

More than 800 years ago St Francis was able with love and humility to tame even the wildest beasts, and speak to even the shyest creatures. Today, his namesake is doing the same – taming the nastiest and communicating with the most vulnerable. May he go on and on.

Pope Francis comes at a tragic time for Christians around the world. Muslim fanatics have killed more than 60 hostages in a shopping mall in Nairobi. To determine which prisoner to release, and which to shoot, the terrorists asked a simple question: what is the name of the Prophet’s mother? This revealed their target: Christians.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, two Muslim suicide bombers attacked a church and killed at least 83 people after Mass.

Religious persecution seems horrific to us westerners. We would never kill someone for their religious belief, we like to tell ourselves. In fact, as I found out in researching an e-book, No God Zone (currently number one on the Kindle Singles non-fiction chart), authorities in the West are also hostile to Christians. They have approved more than 40 laws in the EU alone which discriminate against Christians – in terms of everything from forcing Danish ministers to marry gay couples against their will to making pharmacists in Ireland sell the morning-after pill.

Freedom of conscience used to help Christians (and other believers) get an exemption when it came to matters of faith. No longer. As a result, a number of professions, from pharmacist to magistrate, are closed now to believers.  

It would be sacrilegious to draw a parallel between Christians who lose their lives and those who merely lose their livelihood as a result of prejudice. But Christians should have the right to express their belief, in both East and West, the developed and the developing worlds.

To read the rest of Cristina Odone’s column buy this week’s print edition of The Catholic Herald, out on Friday