29 Dec 2013

Pope Francis: revolutionary shepherd for a secular age?

It did not seem a particularly auspicious debut for St Peter’s heir. We had been standing outside the basilica named after him, huddled beneath umbrellas after several hours of rain, when white smoke began to pour from the chimney of the Sistine chapel and we knew that we had a new Pope.

Despite the atrocious weather, a delirium swept the crowd in search of a new beginning for an embattled church. The bells of St Peter’s rang out but I could scarcely hear them. Excited Catholics began crying and hugging with joy, as if God had just performed a miracle right in front of them; and perhaps the supreme judge of this celestial talent contest really had looked down from Michaelangelo’s wonderful ceiling and helped pick the new pontiff from the cardinals below.

“Brothers and sisters,” Jorge Mario Bergoglio said, when he first appeared on the papal balcony. “Good evening.”

The first non-European Pope in 1,300 years was diffident, the Argentinian cracking a joke that his fellow cardinals had gone “to the ends of the earth” to find him.

Then Pope Francis bid the vast crowds “good night, and have a good rest” before disappearing inside.

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The humility of the man was quickly apparent. He may have been aged 76 – “It’s out with the old, and in with the old,” I had wisecracked about the papal conclave a few days earlier – but he seemed to have more of the common touch than his predecessor, the bookish Benedict, who had resigned at the age of 85, citing ill health.

Benedict will perhaps be remembered¬†more for his resignation than anything else. A worldwide child abuse scandal stained his papacy. Papacies should rise above events, but Benedict’s seemed to struggle in the wake of them, caught in a news cycle the ailing pontiff could not control and probably could barely comprehend.

According to Vatican leaks, Bergoglio had come second during Benedict’s election in 2005, yet much of the Pope-spotting industry had failed to identify him as a leading contender this time around.

Confounding expectations

In the last few months, Pope Francis has met, and then confounded, those early expectations borne of his first balcony appearance. The global media is still in shock at the simple fact that a Christian has become Pope: a man who appears determined to practice what the gospels preach. “Christian Gets Top Job” is how I try to explain one of 2013’s headline stories to my journalist friends.

It seems that the defining experience of his life is his knowledge of poverty in the slums of his native Buenos Aires, where Francis first ministered to those in need.

Now the memory of South America’s dispossessed seems to haunt the gilded corridors of the Vatican in Rome. The new tenant lives in a hostel, drives a battered old Renault 4 and rails against what he calls the “tyranny” of capitalism.

He says the church has become “obsessed” with the issues of abortion and gay marriage, and asks “Who am I?” to judge gay people.

Theological shift?

It is still too early to make complete sense of this. There’s no evidence the Pope has shifted from any of his theological beliefs, and a man who has never worked inside the Vatican may struggle to change it.

But even if his theology remains conservative, his message is disarmingly inclusive and his personal simplicity may have an evangelising power all of its own.

The “Prince of the Church” who forsook the archbishop’s palace, cooked for himself and rode the bus to work is now trying to live the same way, albeit in the glare of the global spotlight.

Following in the footsteps of his namesake, Saint Francis, the world’s poor have in Pope Francis an ambassador of their own. If the Catholic church recommits itself to helping them, regardless of faith; if it condemns less and forgives more, then it will have been found and rescued by the revolutionary shepherd it needs for this sceptical and secular age.

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