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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