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Nice guy or tough guy? The two faces of Pope Francis

First Published      Last Updated Jun 19 2017 01:56 pm

Vatican City • To the vast majority, Pope Francis is the compassionate face of Catholicism today.

He's rescued refugees, opened the Vatican's doors to the homeless and told Catholics there's no sin God won't forgive.

But there is another streak to the Argentine pontiff that has been on display in recent days: a willingness to flex papal muscle and lay down the law.

Underneath the pope's compassion is a steely side, which he's particularly ready to use when it comes to priests, bishops or cardinals he believes are undermining the church's mission.

It was evident earlier this month when the pope delivered a stinging rebuke to priests from the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria. The priests had refused to accept the 2012 appointment of a bishop from a different clan.

When he met with the Ahiara clergy, he ordered each one of them to apologize in writing, pledge "total obedience" to the papacy and accept whomever he appoints to lead the diocese.

To top it off, he told the priests they must send their letter within 30 days or face automatic suspension. As papal disciplining goes, it doesn't get much tougher.

The pope was furious clan differences were being put before the church's unity and mission. If there is one thing Francis dislikes, it's the church being used for political, sectarian or tribal agendas.

"It's a mistake to think of Francis as a 'nice guy,' " one of his aides said. The pope, he explained, is a "radical" with a mission.

A day later, on June 9, Francis made another tough move. The Vatican announced that the pope had accepted the resignation of Archbishop Alfredo Zecca of Tucumán, Argentina, for health reasons.

The letter stated that the 68-year-old would not simply go into an early retirement but would remain as a "titular" archbishop, meaning that technically he still has to serve.

Was this some sort of punishment? Zecca has reportedly upset the pope for a failure to defend one of his priests, the Rev. Juan Viroche, an outspoken voice against drug traffickers.

In October, Viroche was found hanged, but Zecca resisted calls to put up a plaque in Viroche's parish commemorating the priest. Instead he accepted the official version of events that Viroche committed suicide. Many locals suspect the suicide was staged.

Driving both these moves is Francis' passionate aversion to hypocrisy. The pope has repeatedly denounced Christians who live a "double life," even arguing it is better to be an atheist than a "hypocritical Catholic" who condemns others but fails to practice what he or she preaches.

Instead, the pope wants an inclusive church. He wants Catholic leaders to be peacemakers in their respective societies and be able to "bind up the wounds" of division. To see a bishop doing the opposite has made his blood boil.

Eighteen months ago during a visit to Africa, Francis made an appeal in Kenya against the "spirit of evil" that "takes us to a lack of unity." In unscripted remarks during a meeting with young people in Nairobi he then asked them to hold hands as "a sign against bad tribalism."

The pope also demonstrated his stern side by taking action against the Knights of Malta, an ancient Catholic chivalric order, after its then leader, Matthew Festing, was accused of improperly sacking a senior aide in a row ostensibly over the distribution of condoms by medical projects for the poor.

When the pope announced an investigation into the matter, the dispute mushroomed into a proxy war between Francis and those opposed to the direction of his papacy with Cardinal Raymond Burke — one of the pope's fiercest critics who had been appointed the Vatican liaison with the order — playing a key role in the saga. The pope won.

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