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

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Benedict Cumberbatch attends a special screening of his latest film The Imitation Game  

Benedict Cumberbatch race row: What's the actual difference between 'coloured' and 'person of colour'?

Matthew Norman
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century