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

Recruitment Genius: Software Support Analyst

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a career in custome...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Recruitment Genius: 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Engineer - Managed Services Provider

£30000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Eng...

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot