Pope Francis Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Since becoming the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, Pope Francis has certainly led his flock with a forthright belief that the organisation needed a fundamental overhaul. And in five years, he has done that, at times alienating the ranks of senior clergy, offering hope to a worldwide congregation alienated by the sins of some priestly fathers.

Pope Francis too is a man where the word ‘tolerance’ hangs from his lips, but also in his daily actions and pronunciations from a church that accepts as faith the dogma of papal infallibility.

Last week, it was announced that Pope Francis will visit the UAE in February, culminating in a mass in Abu Dhabi on February 5, where more than 100,000 will attend. Certainly, his visit underscores boldly just how tolerant the UAE is — a fact highlighted with 2019 having been designated as the Year of Tolerance by the UAE.

For Muslims, the importance of the pontiff’s visit is highly significant — a very clear signal that tolerance, compassion and dialogue enable understanding and peace. For the UAE, it is a papal endorsement of a nation that brings together expatriates from 200 countries in harmony and peaceful co-existence, recognising that we each come into this world as unique individuals and bridge our differences through universal values.

Francis too is not afraid to speak out on these differences and on those who divide in hate rather than unite in harmony. In early July, while much of the world’s attention was focused on the rescue of a football team from a Thai cave, Francis used the opportunity of a summit of Christian leaders — not just Roman Catholics but those from the Eastern, Orthodox, Coptic and Protestant streams — to deliver a timely message, noting that building walls, occupying territories and propagating religious fanaticism could never resolve conflict across the Middle East.

He repeated his view that the status quo of occupied Jerusalem must be respected and its heritage is equally shared between Christians, Muslims, Palestinians and Jews.

The place for that speech too was symbolic — in Bari, for centuries a gateway to the Middle East. Indeed, for many thousands of refugees who have fled conflict across the Middle East, Italy itself, up to the election of its right-wing coalition government, was the first point of call on the start of a new life.

“Truces maintained by walls and displays of power will not lead to peace, but only the concrete desire to listen and to engage in dialogue will,” Pope Francis said. “Let there be an end to the few profiting from the sufferings of many. No more occupying territories and thus tearing people apart.”

He condemned religious extremism too, saying conflicts in the region had been stoked by “forms of fundamentalism and fanaticism that, under the guise of religion, have profaned God’s name ... and persecuted age-old neighbours”.

The pontiff too is the Head of the State of Vatican City, an independent nation and the spiritual home for 1.2 billion faithful around the world. He is the first Latin American to lead the Catholic Church and the first Jesuit — an order that embraces poverty, but is rigid in spreading the message of Roman Catholicism through education. Considered to be orthodox on matters such as sex and abortion, but liberal on social justice, his enthronement was welcomed by both conservatives and reformers of the church alike. He has since proven to be quite different from anyone’s expectations.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who would eventually become Pope Francis, was born on December 17, 1936, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Born to Italian immigrants, Jorge had a considerably normal upbringing. He was known to like dancing and has a fondness for milonga — the traditional music of Argentina and Uruguay.

Aged 21, Jorge fell gravely ill and was diagnosed with severe pneumonia, resulting in part of his right lung being removed. It was around this time that the man who would become the 266th Pope earned a living and supported his studies by working as a doorman at a nightclub in Buenos Aires.

In 1958, following a chance meeting with a priest, Jorge entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus.

Two years later, he took his first vows as a Jesuit and his first steps on a life-long path dedicated to religion. After studying humanities in Chile for a year he returned to Buenos Aires to study philosophy. Between 1964 and 1966 he taught in Santa Fe, Argentina, and later in Buenos Aires.

On December 13, 1969, Jorge was ordained as a Catholic priest, spending the early 1970s in Spain, where he completed his tertianship, a period of strict discipline, before taking his final vows in the Jesuit order. For the next three years, he served as a master of novices and vice-chancellor at San Miguel seminary before taking his perpetual profession as a Jesuit. From 1973 to 1985, he took on various roles: Serving as superior of Jesuit province of Argentina and Uruguay, as rector of Colegio Maximo, and as a theology teacher. He finished his doctoral thesis in Germany in 1986. In June 1997, he was named coadjutor archbishop and a year later he became the archbishop of Buenos Aires. He was elevated to Cardinal in 2001 and, in 2005, he came second in the conclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

Following the unexpected resignation of Benedict on February 28, 2013, the Papal conclave was convened on March 12 to elect a new Pope.

Only a day later, white smoke emanated from the Sistine Chapel chimney. The decision was quick: Francis was the Pope.