Anniversary of a Pope for the poor, not the media
This Pope wants a church at the service of the needy. The media may even get bored with him. What would make the headlines is permitting contraception, or abortion, or allowing women priests. But he won’t do any of that
Papal elections are fascinating events and the last one, a year ago, did not disappoint, as I wrote in these pages. It now appears that whilst everyone outside the Vatican (myself included) was staggered by the election of Archbishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, no one inside was surprised at all. There have been whispers that he was runner up to Benedict in 2005.
Debate as to what sort of Pope he will turn out to be is rife in the Western Press as we celebrate his first anniversary.
Should we be interested? Islam, Judaism and Christianity all contain a broad scattering of opinion around a central message and there is a continuing conflict between them which is sometimes healthy, sometimes not so. I even see an element of the differences between Eastern Orthodox and Russian Orthodox emerging in the Ukraine.
But the Catholic Church, through its centralised hierarchical structure, is the branch of religion most vulnerable to a change in leadership. Something dramatic could happen, which it could not with the emergence of a new rabbi or imam.
I remember talking to a friend, years ago now, about what a great man I thought Pope John Paul II was: he had held enormous masses which people in far away countries – never before visited by the papacy – would go miles to attend. He even came to Britain, where he was a huge success. He seemed to have evangelised the whole world.
The problem, my friend said, is that for many on the liberal wing of the Church, the then pope’s soaring popularity disguised his true policies: he was an arch conservative. Liberals were confronted with this rockstar image no pope had had before, whilst not much liking the look of its doctrinal fundament.
It was John Paul II who made our new pope a cardinal, and this Argentinean of Italian ancestry is also a Jesuit, an arm of the Church noted for its teaching, but also its conservative doctrinal adherence.
So what sort of Pope will Francis be? A liberal reformer? He has made noises about the treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics (they are currently denied communion) and has said that if a homosexual seeks God, ‘who am I to judge?’ This seems to have given encouragement to the liberals.
Or will he be a conservative, as you might expect from a Jesuit promoted by John Paul II? Or will he change some things and not others?
I will go out on a limb and say none of these wishes are likely to be satisfied, in part because he doesn’t want to be categorised. Why should he want, one year into his papacy, to be given the stamp of John XXIII (1958-1963), ‘the good pope’, who started the liberalising Second Council of the Vatican, or of Paul VI (1963-1978) who continued with Vatican 2 but wrote Humanae Vitae, outlawing contraception?
Why, for that matter, should he want to emulate John Paul II?
Instead, Francis wants to concentrate, not on the things he doesn’t like, but on the things he does. From his own simple lifestyle (his predecessor Benedict seemed rather fond of the trappings of office) to his washing of the feet of the young offenders in Casal del Marmo prison, two of whom were women, one a Muslim, we can see that Francis wants to project humility.
The reason for this is that his real mission is to the poor. He doesn’t want a posh church; he doesn’t want a rich church; he wants a church at the service of the needy.
Strange to say as his name is on every front page, but I rather think the western press is gradually going to drop Francis after this, for not being exciting enough. And His Holiness certainly won’t be sorry. What would make the headlines is permitting contraception, or abortion, or allowing women priests. But he won’t do any of that.
Instead, much of his time and energy will be spent cleaning up the Vatican, from the Curia to the Bank; but that won’t make headlines either. It will be done quietly and is a long-term investment in the Church, not a short-term shock.
And while we are all bored, Francis will pursue a philosophy straight from the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven....Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
It won’t interest us too much, but then it’s not for us.
Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here
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