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Do We Have a New Pope for a Renewed Church?
Now, I would like to give you a blessing, but first I want to ask you for a favour. Before the bishop blesses the people, I ask that you pray to the Lord so that he blesses me" - HH Pope Francis I, 13 March 2013

20 March   |   2013   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Habemus Papam! We now have a new pope for the Catholic Church - and what a surprise it was for many of us when his name was read out in Latin by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. In fact, most of us were left scratching our heads as we tried to decipher the identity of the new man who will now head an institution of almost 1.3 billion adherents.

Mind you, I am confident that many of my readers will have already learnt some of the public characteristics of this man. He is for instance the first pope to be a Jesuit since he hails from the religious order of the Society of Jesus. He is the first pope from Latin America and we therefore no longer witness another Italian or European at the helm. He is also the first pope to adopt the name of Francis I in homage to St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, who had an unswerving directness of purpose and an unfaltering sense of ideals and whose main traits included a deep solidarity with the poor and a love for animals and the environment. But let me add a fourth characteristic by pointing out that he is the first pope too with one lung since childhood!

So now that we have dispensed with the initial and headline-grabbing sound bites, perhaps it is time to look beyond the endearing charm and winning smile of the new Bishop of Rome in order to posit a tad more soberly on his relationship with - and therefore his impact upon - the Catholic Church.

  • A first basic point one needs to highlight is that the Catholic Church is universal. One of the consequences of this universalism is that the issues affecting believers from one continent to another might be different. It is quite plausible, I would suggest, that the concerns of a man or woman in Africa or Latin America are not the same as those in Australia, North America, Europe or - more directly in the case of my own readership - the Middle East.
  • However, despite his leaning, it is quite clear that Francis I now faces an immense array of challenges left by his predecessor. In a nutshell, and somewhat broadly, those include a shortage of priests, rising secularism in a West that increasingly sees the church as being out of touch (and therefore dabbles with different forms of faith, spirituality and religion), growing competition from Evangelical churches in the Global South and the sexual abuse crisis that has severely undermined the moral authority of the church and tainted some of its priests.
  • An enormous amount of hope - perhaps inflated in some ways - resides with this man. Those who support his doctrinal conservatism are reassured by the fact that he will not veer away from the teachings and decisions of his two predecessors John-Paul II and Benedict XVI. But those who look at his zeal for social justice as well as solidarity with the poor hope that he will prove to be more like Pope John XXIII - a man who spoke from the heart and who was more open and conciliar albeit also somewhat misunderstood - and that he will keep in mind the writings of the late Jesuit priest Martin Malachi who left the priesthood out of despair or perhaps those of the former Episcopal Bishop of Newark John Shelby Spong - not to mention of course the Swiss priest and theologian Hans Küng or the late Cardinal Carlo Martini who was also a fellow Jesuit and Archbishop of Milan.
  • In his inaugural homily a couple of days ago, the new pope captured the attention of many peoples when he spoke once again about his deep compassion for the poor and his stewardship of the environment. Equally powerful was his concluding quotation from St Matthew’s Gospel where he paraphrased that the power of the church lies in its service and not its pomposity and that this is what one must ultimately be judged on.

From those sparse and painfully succinct bullet points, I can already argue that the new pope would inherit a few realities and therefore start his papacy with renewed core principles. And from the little I have seen or heard already, I believe that the tenderness he manifests is in fact his strength and that his Jesuitical background endows him with sufficient craftiness and steel to do what it takes to help steer the Catholic Church forward on a number of points:

  • One fundamental point is to tackle the largely Eurocentric Curia - the equivalent of the civil servants in any government - who are set in their own ways or who are in some respects dysfunctional. The key to reform, renewal and progress within the Church lies in his ability to transform the institution rather than allow himself to be transformed - coerced - by it. Everyone is looking at him to see whether he will succeed in this task where his recent predecessors vacillated in order to give the church its broad diversity and openness.
  • He should also urgently overhaul the Vatican Bank and usher in the transparency that the Moneyval Report of the Council of Europe as well as other institutions or individuals have called for over past decades.
  • Hugely important to the Church as a whole, and perhaps telling of the way he moves forward, will be his ability to root out the culture of impunity or opaqueness that has surrounded the horrid cases of paedophilia and sexual / child abuse within the Church. The word ‘criminal’ best describes such acts and I opine that he must not only continue but also redouble the efforts of Benedict XVI in exposing and eradicating this culture inasmuch as possible to reassure ordinary Catholics of the goodness of their institutions.
  • Pope Francis might also look at the church structures and realise how under-represented lay people (and particularly women) are in the upper echelons of the church. I am not anticipating a revolutionary sense of renewal at this stage whereby women will become priests overnight and priests will forsake their celibacy vows. But the question within an all-male clerical culture is whether “There is neither male nor female. In Christ you are one” (Galatians 3:28)? Ability is sexless and what I am praying for is an inevitable realisation that lay men and women are painfully absent from the Vatican higher structures - and certainly from an all-male and ageing Curia - despite the fact incidentally that women alone represent 70% of all believers.
  • As a Latin American who experienced the dirty war of Argentina during the junta years, and given his less Eurocentric culture, he might also strive to underline the wider outreach of a universal church that is no longer Roman by geography or demography. This means inter alia that the new pope should part ways with Benedict XVI and encourage instead a sense of collegiality whereby all the bishops across all continents will have the authority to shepherd more ably their flocks and that the central hub of every decision will no longer lie in the slow machinery of the Vatican in Rome. Of course, this can only be achieved efficiently if the structures are made available for such a sense of collegiality.
  • Finally, the pope should be open to the ecumenical nature of the Christian Church. He is the 265th successor to St Peter and that reality cannot be taken away from him. However, the Church of Christ goes beyond Catholicism and it behoves well for Francis to open bridges with the Orthodox Churches as well as with Reform Churches let alone strengthen the bonds of peace or ease any strains with Judaism and Islam. After all, it was the first time since the schism of 1054 that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I attended the inauguration of a new pope in Rome. And whilst we should bear in mind that this is a two-way street, was it not attributed to St Francis of Assisi that “Preach the Gospel, and only if necessary use words”?
  • Within this ecumenism are the Christians - alongside their Muslims neighbours - of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. They should not be forgotten or ignored as they undergo radical and at times challenging changes in their own countries. Rome should firmly stand on the side of dignity, fundamental freedoms and socio-economic justice and - not unlike Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio - lift up the faithful grassroots.

This is such a tall order that I truly wonder if a man of 76 years can manage to initiate let alone undertake this metanoia and implement some of those substantive reforms. But I would suggest that Francis I is quite conscious that he has a short time to leave his fingerprints on the papacy - either before he dies or retires like his predecessor - and is therefore determined to see those changes through. As an American priest and a truly dear friend wrote to me earlier this week, “It seems that the gentle breezes of change are wafting through our beloved Church”. And perhaps he is right too!

What is required from the new pope today is more than an evocative name and a humble posture. Catholicism also needs someone like Pius V (1504-1572) at whose tomb Francis prayed on the day after his elevation - a disciplinarian whose housecleaning helped further the Counter-Reformation. The Vatican needs to revamp its topmost structures and put its own house in order to enable real corresponding renewal from below. ‘Do what I say, not what I do’, can be no longer!

For Francis to make changes, he must contend with power centres within the Vatican that revolve around money, real estate and the distribution of resources as much as foreign policy, ideology and church doctrine. Beneath the pope, a handful of powerful cardinals preside over nine congregations that manage religious orders, global missionary work, the liturgy and the naming of bishops as well as twelve pontifical councils. And the most powerful administrator, after the pope himself, is his secretary of state who plays a critical role in guiding church affairs, setting the foreign policy agenda and controlling access to the pope. He will be the pivotal man to make or break any renewal, reform or collegiality.

The pope indubitably has talents and a charisma that he needs to apply to the whole church, to its men and women across all five continents. Those who do not believe in a divine God or are antagonistic to anything faith-centred will consider my thoughts as nothing more than codswallop! I am at ease with their standpoint. But for those like me who aspire for a transcendental meaning to life beyond the here and now, the new pope can either help strengthen our faith or else crush it with more disillusionment. After all, renewal - or its Arabic concept of tajdeed - is fundamental to all cycles of life.

A final thought: was it not the Blessed John Henry Newman who said once that “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Indeed, what many unsure men and women increasingly seek in a religious institution today is not another leader issuing top-down edicts about the faith but rather a new pope who trusts a renewed church.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2013   |   20 March


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