14 Mar 2013

Papal shot in the arm for the political classes

He may be Argentinian, the first non-European Pope in 1,000 years. He may be an outsider. But above all, he’s a Jesuit – the first ever to become Pope.

Intellect combined with humility is a poisonous cocktail. We live in unequal times. There has been no global leader of late to challenge our comfort with that inequality.

Suddenly there is one. Flailing around in one the gravest moral crises ever to seize the Catholic church, cardinals, having tried once eight years ago, have succeeded second time round in confronting that crisis – not by institutional methods from the top down but from the bottom up.

Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio understands deprivation and has practiced a nuanced response to it.

When he became a cardinal more than a decade ago, he refused to buy new episcopal robes, preferring instead to cut up his predecessor’s and have them sorted for himself. He refused a vast enthronement, forbade anyone to fly or drive the vast distances to attend, and told all his bishops and clerics who would have come, to give the money they would have spent upon doing so to give it to the poor.

When drug gangs warred in local shantytowns he took the bus to meet them. He walked the narrow meandering tracks between the houses to reassure those who lived there that the wars were over.

He never moved into the many-roomed cardinal’s residence, preferring a single room above the Catholic offices in Buenos Aires. It’s hard to imagine that in such circumstances he will live the expansive life that some past Popes have lived in the Vatican.

Let’s see what his enthronement brings. Will he cut back the flummery and the nonsense? Cardinals attending fly business class at the least and are chauffeured everywhere – some of them live like princes.

Once before, a conclave dared to pick a Pope who preached simplicity and humility. John Paul I was dead within 33 days of taking office. I lived in Rome then.

My best contact was the head of the Jesuit seminary. He had met the Pope wandering in the Vatican garden 16 days into his papacy. He was weeping. He told Father Vincent, my friend, that he felt resented and bullied. Curia officials were wheeling great bin loads of documents into his quarters demanding he sign them.

Paul VI, his predecessor, had been too gaga even to wield a pen in his final years. I believe to this day that John Paul I was “pressured to death” – his fatal heart attack a direct consequence of self-serving Curia actions.

Pope Francis will be a harder nut to crack. He will not easily be managed. If he gets his way in becoming a thoughtful, perhaps outspoken champion of the poor, he could become a living embarrassment to us all. In so doing, he might challenge the banker, the bonus, the language of hate, the politics of “me first”. Temporal politicians need the sort moral leadership which Pope Francis promises like a hole in the head.

Money scandals, sex abuse, gross largesse and the rest that have rotted the Catholic church at the top. We were told we needed a Pope with both holiness and an MBA. But maybe what these troubled prelates have chosen is a man who will light the blue touch paper against corruption and inequality from the bottom.

At 76, is it too late for such a man to make an impact? If he manages it, are we who dwell in the temporal world going to be ready to respond? Ready to consider our own wealth relative to our neighbour’s poverty? Ready to take the bus or get on our bikes, instead of gassing up our neighbour’s air?

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22 reader comments

  1. Marverde says:

    It would be sensible for a journalist of your calibre to include “some” reference to the role of the Catholic church authorities during the Videla years. How good is a “man of God” who didn’t speak up against the Guerra Sucia?

  2. Theodore Koulouris says:

    Are you serious, Jon? Are we supposed to take this article seriously? Cure inequality? Laughable, at best.

    1. Philip says:

      I take it you actually read the article? I think it was about the new Pope challenging us to do more about inequality rather than curing it. Just challenging people to do something about inequality would be a step change on what (a) the previous Popes and (b) virtually all politicians and (c) most of the establishment (d) business leaders – notably bankers – have been doing hitherto. And it would be utterly consistent with the teachings of the founder of Christianity, whose words seem to have been lost & perverted over the course of the centuries. I am not a Christian or a believer, but I support anyone who will make a strong public stand to encourage ALL OF US to tackle inequality.

  3. Philip Edwards says:


    The singer, not the song.

    I’ll believe honesty and profound change when it is delivered. All the rest is vestments, incense, and pious, superstitious, hypocritical nonsense.

    You would need a flame thrower to clean that place out.

  4. v hamill says:

    New brooms sweep clean. More power to his arm.

  5. Justin Lewis-Anthony says:

    “Intellect combined with humility is a poisonous cocktail.” Whereas the opposite (ignorance and arrogance) is always pure ambrosia? Did this article get read through after it was written?

  6. Bob says:

    I am a former Catholic & think it’s the whole down to earth approachability and socialist democratic viewpoint that needs to be encouraged in the Catholic church. Why no woman priests? What about preachers marrying? Gay marriage etc? These are the things that will hopefully, over the course of centuries finally be accepted. They need to catch up with the rest of the world. Being catholic provides a moral law for it’s followers to an extent but like politics, there is corruption, gross misconduct and worse. There are many of the clergy who do great things for humanity and it sounds as if the new Pope is one of them. So are you Jon and the Channel 4 news team. That’s a very thoughtful piece of writing. There’s a moral responsibility to deliver the right information and in a sense like religion fight a battle between good and evil and shape peoples perception of the world in the best possible way. People define their existence through the media as much as religion. We need to fight condemnation in this era is of the disadvantaged, unemployed, poor and other victims of societal corruption such as endemic racism, militarism and so on. It’s good to have media that cares rather than the idea that governmental or political policies can wrongly alter the perceptions of the masses. We should all fight the good fight of socio economic corruption, extremist politics and people with very cruel tongues who destroy and kill all the good from the gaslight, the gun or the bomb. How long could we talk about foreign policy? A business of death that loses money and kills the innocent and the soldiers who are send out to make a living with few other options. Our dwindling public sector with widespread corruption & less rights for corporate workers. We’ve got a mentally astute pope who’s savvy with the real world. That’s a good start. What about parliament? http://youtu.be/bLInkCA_JQM

    1. Victor Koledoye says:

      Bob, I do agree with your assertion as per the role of the church being the voice of the voiceless and defender of defendless; ironically that is one pointer that the true church cannot be expected to live in “conformity” to the desires of men, rather to always be a light especially when truth is being derided out of malice, human weakness from sin, and pride. The truth is always constant. The truth which guide the church one thousand years ago is still the same, because God is constant, so its man that has to learn how to always conform to God’s standard, not the truth bending to accomodate man, and on this the true church must be constant moral guide and custodian of those unchangable truth. The day the church succumb to Gay/Lesbianism marriage and all other issues you mentioned, we can as well forget about a church, and we would have come to the end of the world, that would be a church like a salt that lost its taste!!!

  7. Martyn Taylor says:

    I think you are getting a bit over excited Jon re your trip to Rome (as per last nights broadcast which was a bit shambolic). One man in charge of one part of the Sky God religion is unlikely to make much difference – even if he does mend his own clothes or whatever. Are you a Catholic by the way as I think your journalistic distancing has gone a bit wobbly re the Pope hoo-haa.

  8. amari blaize says:

    I’m with you…in the midst of cynicism let’s hold on to hope. Hope is a wonderful thing.

  9. Min Clifford says:

    We can but hope that at last we have got a true “Man of God” not the “out of touch” hypocrites who have come before! I trust your moral compass John.

  10. Yanomami Vingança says:

    Whit a glorius time it is being for the Roaman Catholic empire! First evar Holy Pope from South America and also being on the permeter of regaining control of England! We in Chile are so hyappy that Camila the Wive of Prince Charles is Catholic. Such poise such reglaity does the Vatican soon regain.

    Grate peace and love from Chile to you Jon! xxx

  11. Bob says:

    Endure their spite & sleight. What’s difficult is fighting the devil in the form or hacking, soviet conditioning and mind control. They make a piece of writing intended to be good read badly.
    I have a few hannibal lecters determined to sabotage and ruin everything from my image through to business, mental health, family relations and friends. The press doesn’t cover gang stalking – evidence of continual hacking means nothing. Constant abuse and sleight day and night won’t kill me though I’m sure they would like to try. It’s the nice old ladies who turn out to be the biggest savages. Unbelievable really

  12. Prince Charles says:

    So much for “men of peace”,given the last one was in the Hitler Youth.

    From a UK broad sheet.

    Unfortunately, the soothing words of the new Pope in the past on the issue of the Falklands and Argentina’s claim are unlikely to please many on the islands, who on Monday recorded a 99.8 per cent in favour of retaining their British sovereignty in a referendum.

    In a mass in Buenos Aires last year to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1982 invasion by Argentine forces, the then still cardinal told veterans: “We come to pray for those who have fallen, sons of the country who went out to defend their mother country, to reclaim that which is theirs and was usurped from them.”

    Three years earlier, Cardinal Borgoglio told the families of Argentine soldiers killed in the conflict before they travelled to the military cemetery on the islands: “Go and kiss this land which is ours, and seem to us far away.”

    You may as well have reported on an “election” in the the KKK.

    1. margaret brandreth-jones says:

      The result of the referendum is indeed good news.In these times of potential dwindling British concern as we fear being engulfed by Europe , the maintenance of British sovereignty is welcome to us in the UK and obviously the Falklanders.

  13. Finbarr Mary says:

    Good on you John. Hopefully we may get someone like Pope John who taught the cynical and know-nothings that love can work miracles– literally! Lets be positive and supportive, but first please clarify this question about Francis’s attitude to the dictators?

  14. Daveen Wilson says:

    Thank-you SO much for this, Jon – we in our household think you are not only an excellent writer, but very insightful, and grateful to have this window into the papacy. SO glad the new Pope is a South American (though a Brazilian would have been even better! – we ARE biased). BTW, in light of comment above, we are not Catholics – but know this man could have a great influence in the way you say – and hoping he does. THESE are the issues that matter, not gay marriage or women priest – but whether children are dying because they don’t have enough food.

  15. mary kelly says:

    A very thoughtful piece Jon. As a practising Catholic with many doubts and a sense of shame about recent scandals and a church that feels so anti-woman, i allow myself some hope that this Pope will not be remote. I don’t expect a liberal from among those appointees to the college of cardinals. But i dare hope for womeone who knows about poverty and soical injustice. That’s a start.

  16. Hilda Hunter says:

    Whilst I am generally on the same wave length with much of your thinking Jon, your “poisonous chalice” is beyond me. Many great men and women through the ages have been bestowed with intellect and humility, both qualities having contributed significantly to their amazing achievements. Nelson Mandela for one.
    H. Hunter

  17. Meg Howarth says:

    Excellent New York Times piece by Argentinian Martin Caperros


    an antidote to any ‘over-enthusiasm’ in Jon’s post.

  18. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    You see,you have written yourself indirectly that levels of piety exist.

  19. mombser2 says:

    I note the comment- “We live in unequal times”- When did we ever live in equal times-?

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