Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been rapturously received as a pioneering pontiff by beleaguered Catholics, writes TP O’Mahony, but some commentators are warning that it may yet be a question of style over substance.
ON A wall near St Peter’s Basilica in Rome there is a striking portrait by Italian street artist Maupal of Pope Francis dressed as Superman in a cassock. It is yet another small, though this time very graphic, illustration of what some commentators are now calling “the Francis effect”.
Italian street artist Maupal with his street art mural of Pope Francis. Pic: Tiziana Fabi/Getty
Since his election exactly one year ago, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has made an extraordinary impact, not just on the Catholic Church but also the wider world. Shaken to its foundations by the scandal of a spate of clerical sex abuse cases from Ireland to the United States and Australia, and with its reputation shredded, the Church seemed on a downward spiral.
In Can We Save the Catholic Church? Hans Kung, the Swiss-born theologian, now 85, painted a bleak but realistic picture: “The Catholic Church is in its deepest crisis of confidence since the Reformation, and nobody can overlook it.”
The eight-year pontificate of Benedict XVI didn’t help matters. Factionalism was rife in the Vatican, cabals of Cardinals vied with each other, the Vatican Bank was mired in a money-laundering scandal, and matters were brought to a head for Joseph Ratzinger when his trusted butler leaked confidential documents from the papal apartments to a journalist.
On February 11, 2013, Benedict XVI dropped a bombshell when he became the first Pope since Gregory XII in 1415 to resign. Future historians of the Papacy will look back on his tenure as “disastrous”, undoubtedly making the point that the manner in which he left it was the best thing he did. He also left a template for his successors which should ensure that the Church will no longer have to endure the painful spectacle of a lame-duck Pope (as happened in the final phase of John Paul II’s long pontificate).
The world was also surprised when the Conclave of March 2013 elected as his successor Jorge Mario Bergoglio, making him the first Jesuit and the first South American to be Pope. But what kind of Pope would he turn out to be? There is some evidence from the Conclave that many of the Cardinal-electors believed they had chosen a “stop-gap” Pope. If that’s what they wanted, then the evidence — so far — suggests they were spectacularly wrong.
In his first year Francis has had an electrifying effect, generating confidence, optimism and expectation of a kind not experienced since the heady days of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). “With the appointment of Pope Francis we have an unprecedented opportunity, not seen since the days of John XXIII, to fulfil the aims and promises of his Second Vatican Council, and truly bring the Church into a meaningful dialogue with the modern world,” said Professor Kung.
Having been named Person of the Year by TIME magazine in December, the 77-year-old former Archbishop of Buenos Aires then found himself in a spot usually occupied by rock stars or actors — the cover of the February edition of Rolling Stone. The magazine published a 7,700 word profile under the heading “The Times They Are A-Changin”.
In her long essay for TIME magazine in December, senior correspondent Nancy Gibbs wrote: “Rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly — young and old, faithful and cynical — as has Pope Francis.
“In his nine months in office, he has placed himself as the very centre of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power.
“At a time when the limits of leadership are being tested in many places, along comes a man with no army or weapons, no kingdom beyond a tight fist of land in the middle of Rome but with the immense wealth and weight of history behind him, to throw down a challenge. The world is getting smaller; individual voices are getting louder; technology is turning virtue viral, so his pulpit is visible to the ends of the earth. When he kisses the face of a disfigured man or washes the feet of a Muslim woman, the image resonates far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.”
The contrast with his predecessor could hardly be more marked. Benedict XVI was ill-suited for the task of leading the Catholic Church in the 21st century. His fondness for ornate medieval robes and expensive red shoes was just one sign of how out of touch he was.
Pope Francis has already shown a willingness to abandon what Kung calls the “monarchist-absolutist” model of the Papacy to which his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, clung. He has refused to move into the palatial surrounds of the papal apartments (“You could put 300 people in here,” he told an aide when first shown around), settling instead for a Vatican guesthouse. More substantially, his decision to appoint a group of eight Cardinals (now known as the “G8”) to advise him on the running of the Church was a significant nod in the direction of collegiality.
This was a key principle revived and endorsed by the Second Vatican Council, but John Paul II and Benedict XVI were hostile to it, and in their reactionary way worked to undermine it along with other reforms of the Council. One result of their authoritarian approach and obsession with centralised control was that the status and authority of national episcopal conferences were weakened.
In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) which he published on November 24 last year, Pope Francis pledged to change this.
“It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralisation’.”
Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet, the English Catholic weekly, believes the Apostolic Exhortation contains the outlines of a papal blueprint. “The plan that Pope Francis wants the Church to follow has been emerging piece by piece since his election in March, but now he has set it out in detail. He wants a change of the Church’s culture and character, a change of its priorities and a change of its structures.”
The change of culture is already beginning to have an impact within the Vatican. “In recent times it’s felt like I’ve had to defend my faith, to defend the fact that I am a Catholic,” Sean Patrick Lovett, director of English language programmes at Vatican Radio, told Rolling Stone. “Now I’ve never been so proud to be a Catholic working in the Vatican. At the moment I am just enjoying the man. I’m drawing inspiration from him.”
Predictably, though, there are those who are sceptical about what is happening. “Just as church traditionalists have shaken their heads at a man who seems to prefer the title Bishop of Rome, there are also liberals who doubt that progressive intentions will translate into meaningful action,” warns Mark Binelli in his Rolling Stone profile.
Is Pope Francis truly committed to reform? Hans Kung is clear about the “big question” for the new Pope — “where does he stand on serious Church reform?” Despite the accolades, we must wait a while longer for a definitive answer to that question.
Linda Woodward, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, strongly advocates a wait-and-see attitude. “There is huge hope riding on this Pope,” she says. “But so far it has just been gestures. Everyone is holding their breath before the Synod in October.”
This is a reference to the Synod of Bishops, scheduled for Rome, and it will be the first real test of Francis’s mettle.
“I think it is likely there may be movement on divorcees and the sacraments,” says Professor Woodward. “But what about the role of women in the Church?”
However, even as the English language version of Professor Kung’s book was just appearing in bookshops, with its strong advocacy of women priests, the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation was published, and in it Francis reiterated the opposition to the ordination of women first spelled out by John Paul II.
“The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself to the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.”
He went on, however, to stress the need to “recognise more fully” the “possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life”. Only time will show us what that “possible role” might be. In his first year in office Pope Francis has been full of surprises. And there may be more yet to come.
Man who won over world in five minutes
By Annick Benoist
FIVE minutes. That’s all it took to make papal history. Never has a leader of the Roman Catholic Church become as popular in as short a time as Pope Francis did when he humbly asked the crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square on March 13 last year to pray for him.
A year on, Francis, known for his gentle smile and infectious energy, has won over hearts worldwide. Admirers from Manila to Mexico fondly remember his first appearance on the balcony in the Vatican when he began with the simple greeting, “Good evening.”
Maria Angelica Largo, a 50-year-old from Colombia, said she “immediately felt he was closer to the people, more simple and more human”.
“We have never seen a Pope become so popular in just a couple of minutes,” said Odon Vallet, a French historian and an expert on religion.
The Argentine-born Pope’s humble and homespun style — he likes to mingle with the crowds — also bowled over Roger Kouassi, a teacher in the west African country of Ivory Coast for whom the main thing is that “Francis is closer to the people”.
How to live a good marriage? United to the Lord, who always renews our love and strengthens it to overcome every difficulty.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) March 3, 2014
On Twitter too, the 77-year-old pontiff has built up a following of millions of people and his messages are re-tweeted more than those of tech-savvy US president Barack Obama.
Francis became the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years when he was elected by the College of Cardinals a year ago Thursday to succeed Benedict XVI, who chose to retire and is now pope emeritus.
Lent is a good time for sacrificing. Let us deny ourselves something every day to help others.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) March 5, 2014
Over the past year, Francis has won accolades and plaudits for powerful gestures such as washing the feet of young Muslim inmates, embracing the handicapped and asking that gay people not be judged.
In France, where only 3% of Catholics are identified as practicing their religion, priests say there has been an increase in church attendance since Pope Francis’s election. “Before it was ‘uncool’ to be Catholic, now it’s ‘in’,” said Vallet.
Still the man who was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio has to walk a tight rope in his papacy.
The challenge for Christian spouses:remaining together, knowing how to love one another always, and doing so in a way that their love grows.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) March 8, 2014
Among his challenges are the thorny issues of marriage for priests and overhauling the Vatican’s coffers after a string of scandals, including allegations of waste, corruption and even money-laundering.
And the world’s 1.2bn Catholics are grappling with sensitive and often divisive issues, such as homosexuality and abortion. In comments that made waves around the world, Francis last July famously asked: “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”.
Gay rights groups cautiously welcomed the words as a change in tone, but warned they did not reflect a shift in Catholic Church policy — and certainly not a move towards accepting same-sex marriage. “If homosexuals want to marry, they can do so in a civil ceremony but we cannot change the Church of Christ to suit one’s tastes,” said Aurora Gomez, a Catholic in Mexico.
On the other side of the Pacific in the world’s fourth largest Catholic country, Filipino Nona Andaya-Castillo said she would back moves to ease Church policies on homosexuality.
But living in one of the few countries where abortion is still illegal, the 52-ye ar-old added she opposed any moves to soften the Church’s stance on that issue.
Although no one has expected Francis to make radical changes in doctrine, the Pope has shown a willingness to encourage greater understanding and pastoral care of Christians who are divorced, single mothers, or homosexuals.
“The simple humanity of Francis has worked its charm,” said Gilda Rey, a Catholic from the southern French city of Toulouse.
“He doesn’t hesitate to mingle with the crowds or even celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day. He’s a very fraternal Pope.”
Quotes from the Pope
"You know that the duty of the conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world to get him. But here we are." — March 13, 2013, in some of his first words to the world after his election.
"He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil. When we don’t proclaim Jesus Christ, we proclaim the worldliness of the devil, the worldliness of the demon." — March 14, in his first Mass after his election.
"Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor." — March 16, in an address to journalists.
"Let us look around: how many wounds are inflicted upon humanity by evil! Wars, violence, economic conflicts that hit the weakest, greed for money, power, corruption, divisions, crimes against human life and against creation." — March 24, in a Palm Sunday homily.
"We need to go out, then, in order to experience our own anointing (as priests) ... to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters." — March 28, in a homily to priests on their mission.
"Living on €38 a month — that was the pay of these people who died. That is called slave labour." — May 1, in a homily reflecting on the victims of the Bangladesh factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 people.
"Men and women of the Church who are careerists, social climbers, who use the people, the Church, brothers and sisters — those they should serve — as a springboard for their own ambitions and personal interests do great damage to the Church." — May 8, to a gathering of superiors general of orders of nuns from around the world.
"Young people at the moment are in crisis. We have all become accustomed to this disposable culture. We do the same thing with the elderly, but with all these people out of work even they are afflicted by a culture where everything is disposable. We have to stop this habit of throwing things away. We need a culture of inclusion." — July 22, to journalists on the plane taking him to Brazil.
"We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel ... It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door and meet the people!" — July 27, a Mass in Rio de Janeiro.
"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?" — July 29, speaking to reporters aboard the plane returning from Brazil.
"Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!" — September 7, during an international prayer service for peace in Syria.
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that." — September 19, in an interview with the Catholic periodical Civilta Cattolica.
How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?" — November 26, in an apostolic exhortation called Evangelium Gaudi.
"We are in front of a global scandal of around one billion — one billion people who still suffer from hunger today. We cannot look the other way and pretend this does not exist. The food available in the world is enough to feed everyone." — December 9, in a video message launching a campaign against hunger.
"The economic crises ... have pushed man to seek satisfaction, happiness and security in consumption and earnings out of all proportion to the principles of a sound economy." — December 12, in his message for World Day of Peace.
"Marxist ideology is wrong. But in my life I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don’t feel offended (in being called a Marxist).” — December 15, in an interview with an Italian newspaper.
"To depict the Pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone else, a normal person." — March 5, in an interview with an Italian newspaper.
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