Pope Francis is both a continuation of the past and also something very different for the future

Whatever end of the spectrum they stand in, most Catholics know their church is in trouble. Pope Francis may just be the miracle they've been waiting for

Share
Related Topics

In the days running up to this week’s Papal Conclave I did a brief ring round of Catholics about what the Church needed from the man who would become the 266 Pope. The most eloquent response came from an elderly priest who used just two words: “A miracle”.

Whatever end of the spectrum they stand in – be they the type who pines for a radical theological revolution or insists on a continuation of orthodox consistency – most Catholics know their church is in trouble. They are more than aware that they need a Pontiff who will genuinely make his mark in history.

The list of trials facing Catholicism is as long as it is daunting: plummeting church attendance and a massive shortage of new priests in the secular West; a widening theological chasm between the developed and developing world over what is socially acceptable; interreligious animosity and distrust; the seemingly ever-recurring sex abuse scandals and a Vatican bureaucracy that all but the most naïve of commentators will admit is riven with corruption, incompetence and political infighting.

How Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio will prioritise these problems remains to be seen but he will need to tackle them nonetheless.

Pope Francis is both a continuation of the past and something very different. Theologically he is an orthodox conservative like his predecessor Benedict XVI. No-one will be expecting him to take the Catholic Church into a brave new world where homosexuality is suddenly accepted and women are ordained.

But he is a radical choice in so many other ways. Most will concentrate on the firsts – the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit and the first Francis. But his real radicalism lies elsewhere. Above all he is no Vatican insider, unlike so many of the supposed frontrunners, and is serious about a major overhaul of the bureaucrats in Rome. He also lives a deeply ascetic life, cooking his own meals and taking the bus to work. Compared to those who spend their time surrounded by the obscene wealth concentrated in Rome, Cardinal Bergoglio will be able to genuinely sympathise and empathise with the world’s poor like no other recent Pope.

His national heritage also gives the Catholic Church a much needed boost of geo-political realism. It finally has a leader who hails from the developing world, where the vast majority of the world’s Catholics live and where the Church is actually expanding. But might this handicap him when it comes to confronting secularism in the West?

Part of the reason Benedict XVI was elected Pope was his determination to “re-evangelise” those areas of the world – particularly in Europe and North America – where religion has gone from being the protagonist to a cameo. He never had time to carry out his dream. Bergoglio has a distinctly evangelical flavour, but will he stop what the Vatican sees as the rot in the West? Ironically it is in increasingly secular countries like Britain where practising Catholic populations and clergy numbers have plummeted in recent decades that the nature and character of the next Pope could have the most profound effect. If Rome’s new head reigns for as long as John Paul II, the chances are he will either be remembered for halting the decline of Catholicism in the secular world – or failing to stop it altogether.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio: first Latin American, first Jesuit and first Pope Francis to lead the world's Catholics

So what happens next for Pope Francis?

The new Pope has a clear first priority: stop and prevent the sexual abuse of young boys

Pope Francis I: the humble man who moved out of archiepiscopal palace into a simple apartment

Argentina celebrates as their own Catholic leader is elected Pope Francis

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

 

Naturism criminalised: Why not being able to bare all is a bummer

Simon Usborne
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried