14 Mar 2013

New Pope, new doctrine?

The wait is over, but who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio and as Pope Francis does he have the ability to connect with Catholics around the world?

We had been standing for three hours in incessant rain, close to a statue of St Peter, when the smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney finally poured out white.

St Peter had his successor, the 266th Pope. Elected in just over 24 hours, indicative of a conclave which had rallied rapidly around one candidate during five rounds of voting. Out in the square, our feet were soaking wet but we knew our wait was almost over.

Whoops and yells of delight broke out all around us, and a crowd of people lowered their umbrellas, now regardless of the weather, and surged forward towards the papal balcony for their first glimpse of the new Pontiff.

Many were simply too overcome to speak. The Pope is not a semi-divine figure, but many Catholics believe the talent contest which chooses him is inspired by God; he’s also the leader of a flock of some 1.2 billion people, the world’s biggest church, and after a global explosion of scandals involving priests, many Catholics are in need of a new leader bringing with him a new sense of hope, pride and purpose.

For the next two hours the internet and email stopped working, the surge of data spilling out from St Peter’s apparently bringing almost everything crashing down.

A lady from Connecticut managed to get a phone line out, gleefully telling her relatives back home she had seen the smoke and that within forty-five minutes she would see the Pope.

Italians, believers or not, flooded into the square behind us. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, and the conclave had finished its work just after 7pm, allowing thousands of Roman workers to attend the unveiling of Christ’s new chief vicar on earth.

All we knew was that it would be an old man who had never married or had children. An Italian was said to be favourite, followed by a Brazilian, but an old saying has it that “he who enters the conclave a Pope, leaves it a Cardinal”: in other words, don’t get above yourself, don’t presume to this high office, or it will forsake you.

This may well be what occurred. A friend of mine with good Vatican contacts told me that forty-eight hours earlier, some kind of gentle rebellion had occurred, as Cardinals rallied round a man the media had scarcely talked about or written up as a possible winner.

Then yesterday morning, rumours began swirling around Buenos Aires that their Archbishop had performed well in the first ballot and might be on his way to the papacy. The word was out, despite the fact that every Cardinal swears an oath of secrecy, that all communication is supposed to be cut off, and that the threat of excommunication hangs over every attendant.

When he appeared, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the 76 year old Archbishop of Buenos Aires, cracked a joke about how his fellow Cardinals had gone to the ends of the earth in their search for a new Pope.

His appearance was brief. He offered a prayer for Benedict, his predecessor, who had stunned his Cardinals by becoming the first Pope to abdicate St Peter’s throne in almost 600 years.

Perhaps Benedict was watching at home on television. The pictures, broadcast live by Vatican TV, were stunning, the vast floodlit bells of the Basilica ringing in a new start after what seemed to me a Papacy which had been both uninspiring and overshadowed by scandal.

The man who likes to be known simply as Father Jorge is the first non-European Pope since Gregory, a Syrian, died in the year 741. Named Pope Francis after St Francis of Assisi, he is a man known for a simple life style and compassion for the poor.

He touched many here in Rome last night when he bowed before the crowd and asked them to bless him, rather than just the other way round. “Have a good night and a good rest,” he said before disappearing.

Francis’s family is from Italian immigrant stock, and for now there is no reason not to believe that many Italians won’t take the first Latin American Pope to their hearts.

Doctrinally, little may change. The Argentinian Jesuit has opposed the ordination of women, though he has scolded priests who refused to baptise the children of unmarried mothers; but he has also called gay marriage and adoption “a war against God” and a “manoeuvre by the devil”.

“In the Curia, I would die” he said, when asked what it would be like to work in the Vatican’s medieval and murky system of government. Yet this is what Francis must now do – reform it, simplify it, responding to the church’s critics rather than seemingly lagging behind the curve and struggling to keep up.

Simply being a Latin American won’t reinvigorate the Catholic church on its own. At 76, Francis is only two years younger than Benedict was when he took the Papacy, which by Benedict’s own admission had run out of steam and into old age.

Expect Francis to live sparsely, as closely to his namesake as Vatican grandeur allows; but the message he communicates around the world will be the key to this Pontiff’s success.