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

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java, AI)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-Office D...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ashya King in hospital with his mother  

Ashya King: Breakdown in relations led to this PR fiasco

Paul Peachey
Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development holds a carton of eggs during a speech to Better Together supporters  

When the course of history is on the line, democracy is a raw, vicious and filthy business

Matthew Norman
Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.