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.


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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4 reader comments

  1. Archbishop ++Joseph Mary, TOSB,D.D., S.T.D.,JCD,Ph.D...... says:

    “Glory to God, in the Highest”, we have in His Holiness, Pope Francis, One, Who is not afraid to speak His mind, is not putting himself above God, in not judging God’s creatures. His Theological values have not changed, and they will not during his reign as Pope. I, personally was a Roman Catholic and so was ordained in the Roman Line. But, there came a time, as others had to do, that we had to part the Roman Sector due to Vatican II. For myself, it was a God Send for me, that an Orthodox Bishop received me under his wing, and so found a home in the Orthodox Catholic Church. Here I must admit, that I only say the Tridentine Mass, in Latin. It is, to me, the Most True, the Highest way of worshipping, Our Lord, Jesus Christ. I feel such a Peace when saying this Mass, that my whole being is united with Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior, His Blessed Mother Mary and all of the Apostles. May Pope Francis have a long reign and that He recognizes all of the Priests, He must, most assuredly bring back under His Protection. God Bless, Now and Forever.
    +++Joseph Mary TOSB, D.D., S.T.D…………

  2. Alan Hanson says:

    Is your analysis from the same ivory tower as the pope? Too much PR and not enough facts to substantiate your guilded thoughts.

  3. Lawrence Smyth says:

    Who would have believed that the Roman Catholic Church would have elected a humble follower of Christ to lead a diminished congregation back to their true Christian roots?
    Was it perhaps an inadvertent error or oversight, on the part of those otherwise conservative catholic manipulators and power brokers, who are seemingly all too often cosy with the political movers and shakers [manipulators] of our ill divided and corrupt material driven world?

    We have been, perversely perhaps, using the phrase “developed world” to illustrate how far we have come measured by the standards of materialism; a world paradoxically, where ever more people are mired in debt and soon to be left behind.
    For the best part most of us have to live in a globalised world of monopolised exploitation with wanton waste a major by-product, a world dominated by the relentless pursuit of unfettered capitalism; a ‘developed world’ [sic] that cannot be sustained!

    Was it the mysterious work of God himself or was it the voice of reason crying out for change? The Roman Catholic Church was evidently being increasingly seen as a conservative body of power brokers, operating an out-dated hierarchical power structure whilst seemingly all but consumed or should it be obsessed with the protection and cover up of their internal iniquities, irrespective of the colossal harm being done in consequence.

    It is likely to be a very long hard road back, such has been the credibility damage in the wake of the exposure of unprecedented levels of hypocrisy and cover up of endemic child abuse, There are those who would feel that the RC Church is corrupt, almost to its very core. Again, who could argue that it is not, given the cumulative evidence of exposed wrong doing and systemic cover up, taken in the context of the separate issue of its hoarded wealth and further well founded allegations of the involvement of the Vatican Bank in financial scandal – is the Church corrupt to its very core?

    Where, within the governing body of the R C Church, is the evidence of the simplicity of Christs’ message? How does the RC Church reconcile its power base within the teachings of scripture within the New Testament? What does this outward manifestation of empirical power and wealth tell us about the R C Church? Might an honest Christian Pope be permitted to succeed a radical revolution ;reminding those ensconced power brokers that Christ had nothing in common with them? We can only live in hope that Pope Francis can face down those who would otherwise pervert the will of God and corrupt the ways of Christ.

    As Gandhi once put it, I believe and I paraphrase, in this world there is enough for everymans need but not for his greed.This second issue is perhaps a much bigger one for many but is directly related to how aspiring Christians live our lives and control their ambitions and excesses.

  4. Andrew Dundas says:

    Cometh the hour, cometh the change! And don’t we need change now!

    Religious morality is not the only aspect of human life that’s needed a shake up.

    Governments that have used the banking crisis to impose wage cuts on the lowest incomes are part of the same moral crisis that Pope Francis is addressing.

    In Japan, corrupt and greedy government had also imposed unemployment and distress on the people. All in the name of ‘rescuing the economy’. But actually, simply making the rich richer at the expense of ordinary families.

    But an ambitious politician has broken ranks with the scrooges and rescue his reputation by reversing the swingeing austerity of the past 20 years. And shown the correct way to deal with fiscal failure amongst greedy bankers and governments.

    As Japan recovers the proper equilibrium of growth and gentle inflation, we should ask ourselves why our own ‘rich and powerful’ are imposing on Europe (and the UK) the very same policies that failed Japan for 20 years?

    Who’ll have the courage to learn from Japan and challenge the austerity doctrines hereabouts?

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