Pope Francis – The first southern pope – commentary

Pope Francis – The first southern pope

Pope Francis inherits a mess but has great opportunities. He will need to act quickly

EVEN non-believers and non-Catholics should care about the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as Pope Francis. The church which he will now head matters. Its unique privileges in the secular world (such as statehood and a voice at the UN) open it to secular scrutiny. Its good works (such as orphanages and hospitals) are vital. It matters in diplomacy, especially in behind-the-scenes peacemaking. It helped destroy Soviet communism, a global evil. Its stubborn defence of religious freedom is a headache for China’s rulers.   

Outsiders should mind when Francis’s church does harm too. Opposing the use of condoms in Africa may have made sense in theological terms (though even believers often found the stance baffling). But the result was to help HIV to spread, consigning many innocent people to needless pain and death. The church’s cover-up of sexual abuse over past decades in many countries was illegal and compounded the victims’ hurt. The Vatican Bank, another quirky privilege of the Holy See’s special status, has failed to curb money-laundering. And, from sectarian chants at Scottish football matches to the outgoing Pope Benedict’s clumsy criticisms of Islam, tensions with other religions can turn into violent strife.

For this last reason alone, Francis is an earthquake (see article). Just as the election of a Pole in 1978 helped presage the fall of the iron curtain and the reunification of Europe, the Argentine’s election heralds the shift in economic—and political—power from north to south. With John Paul II, the papacy stopped looking like a club for Italians; with Francis it is no longer a club for Europeans. The sight of a southerner in the Vatican will be as important, in its way, as the arrival of the first black man in the White House.

All this symbolism will count for little, though, if nothing changes. Despite his age and his closeness to the conservative Benedict, Francis may be a reformer. It is hard to imagine a man who ditched his limousine and palace in Buenos Aires and took the bus to work from a humble flat putting up with nonsense from Vatican smoothies. In Europe religion may be declining; in Latin America Christianity—albeit of many kinds—is still thriving. He is also an outsider in another sense: the first Jesuit to become pope.

Holy writ

What should he do? A secular newspaper has to divide its suggestions into two groups: reforms to church doctrine that many conservative Catholics, including Francis, may disagree with; and managerial ones that all Catholics can support.

In terms of doctrine, the list of rules that the church defends with great cost and mixed success begins, from our perspective at least, with priestly celibacy. Many priests are married—ex-Anglicans, and the Byzantine-rite Catholics of eastern Europe. All the scriptural evidence suggests that the first pope, Peter, had a wife. Allowing other clergy to do likewise would help stem the decline in the priesthood and relieve a great burden of suffering and loneliness. With that taboo gone, others could follow, such as the ban on artificial contraception.

This may be too much for Francis. But there should be no debate about the urgent managerial need to clean up and modernise the Vatican. The church is scandalously badly run. Francis will have only a short time to make urgently needed changes, sorting out the squabbling cliques of clerical civil servants who drove Benedict to distraction. He needs to confront both the sex-abuse scandal and the financial scandals (especially in America). As the first southern pope, he should also surely move more of the church closer to its congregation. Ditching his Italian holiday residence for a southern one, in Latin America, Asia or Africa, would be a start. Rejigging the college of cardinals, a third of whom are Italian, should be a priority. Deal with these, and Francis will have a better chance of getting across his central messages of love and justice.

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  • Gloria Y Fredericks  On 03/15/2013 at 8:10 pm

    Let us pray for Pope Francis and ask the good Lord to give him the wisdom and understanding to deal with the mess he inherited, and everything else that will confront him. Has anyone noticed the similarities between him and President Obama? Both of them inherited a mess that takes courage, wisdom, and understanding to clean up. Pray for the President too.

  • Rooplall Dudhnath  On 03/24/2013 at 6:30 pm

    O POPE! Rend the veils asunder. He Who is the Lord of Lords is come overshadowed with clouds, and the decree hath been fulfilled by God, the Almighty, the Unrestrained… He, verily, hath again come down from Heaven even as He came down from it the first time. Beware that thou dispute not with Him even as the Pharisees disputed with Him (Jesus) without a clear token or proof. On His right hand flow the living waters of grace, and on His left the choice Wine of justice, whilst before Him march the angels of Paradise, bearing the banners of His signs. Beware lest any name debar thee from God, the Creator of earth and heaven. Leave thou the world behind thee, and turn towards thy Lord, through Whom the whole earth hath been illumined… Dwellest thou in palaces whilst He Who is the King of Revelation liveth in the most desolate of abodes? Leave them unto such as desire them, and set thy face with joy and delight towards the Kingdom… Arise in the name of thy Lord, the God of Mercy, amidst the peoples of the earth, and seize thou the Cup of Life with the hands of confidence, and first drink thou therefrom, and proffer it then to such as turn towards it amongst the peoples of all faiths…

    Call thou to remembrance Him Who was the Spirit (Jesus), Who when He came, the most learned of His age pronounced judgment against Him in His own country, whilst he who was only a fisherman believed in Him. Take 84 heed, then, ye men of understanding heart! Thou, in truth, art one of the suns of the heaven of His names. Guard thyself, lest darkness spread its veils over thee, and fold thee away from His light… Consider those who opposed the Son (Jesus), when He came unto them with sovereignty and power. How many the Pharisees who were waiting to behold Him, and were lamenting over their separation from Him! And yet, when the fragrance of His coming was wafted over them, and His beauty was unveiled, they turned aside from Him and disputed with Him… None save a very few, who were destitute of any power amongst men, turned towards His face. And yet, today, every man endowed with power and invested with sovereignty prideth himself on His Name! In like manner, consider how numerous, in these days, are the monks who, in My Name, have secluded themselves in their churches, and who, when the appointed time was fulfilled, and We unveiled Our beauty, knew Us not, though they call upon Me at eventide and at dawn….

    The Word which the Son concealed is made manifest. It hath been sent down in the form of the human temple in this day. Blessed be the Lord Who is the Father! He, verily, is come unto the nations in His most great majesty. Turn your faces towards Him, O concourse of the righteous… This is the day whereon the Rock (Peter) crieth out and shouteth, and celebrateth the praise of its Lord, the All-Possessing, the Most High, saying: ‘Lo! The Father is come, and that which ye were promised in the Kingdom is 85 fulfilled!…’ My body longeth for the cross, and Mine head waiteth the thrust of the spear, in the path of the All-Merciful, that the world may be purged from its transgressions….

    O Supreme Pontiff! Incline thine ear unto that which the Fashioner of mouldering bones counselleth thee, as voiced by Him Who is His Most Great Name. Sell all the embellished ornaments thou dost possess, and expend them in the path of God, Who causeth the night to return upon the day, and the day to return upon the night. Abandon thy kingdom unto the kings, and emerge from thy habitation, with thy face set towards the Kingdom, and, detached from the world, then speak forth the praises of thy Lord betwixt earth and heaven. Thus hath bidden thee He Who is the Possessor of Names, on the part of thy Lord, the Almighty, the All-Knowing. Exhort thou the kings and say: ‘Deal equitably with men. Beware lest ye transgress the bounds fixed in the Book.’ This indeed becometh thee. Beware lest thou appropriate unto thyself the things of the world and the riches thereof. Leave them unto such as desire them, and cleave unto that which hath been enjoined upon thee by Him Who is the Lord of creation. Should any one offer thee all the treasures of the earth, refuse to even glance upon them. Be as thy Lord hath been. Thus hath the Tongue of Revelation spoken that which God hath made the ornament of the book of creation… Should the inebriation of the wine of My verses seize thee, and thou determinest to present thyself before the throne of thy Lord, 86 the Creator of earth and heaven, make My love thy vesture and thy shield remembrance of Me, and thy provision reliance upon God, the Revealer of all power… Verily, the day of ingathering is come, and all things have been separated from each other. He hath stored away that which He chose in the vessels of justice, and cast into fire that which befitteth it. Thus hath it been decreed by your Lord, the Mighty, the Loving, in this promised Day. He, verily, ordaineth what He pleaseth. There is none other God save He, the Almighty, the All-Compelling.


  • Cyril balkaran  On 03/25/2013 at 10:22 am

    The Pope is an ordinary mortal as you and I. he was now endowed with the powers to heal anyone on earth. The Papal legacy is made by man and so shall man carry out the will of God. The new Pontiff is the head of the Roman Catholic Church and he will do as decreed in the Holy Order of the Church. The Last Words that Jesus uttered on the Cavalry Cross in the Hebrew Language is “ELOI, ELOI LAMA SA BACHATANI. “My GOD, My GOD, why hast thou forsaken Me.” This is the appropriate time of Easter to reflect on the words of the Jesus as he bled to death of the mortal frame due to the many wounds inflicted on him by the swords of the Roman Soldiers!

  • Helene Wilkie  On 02/19/2019 at 10:29 pm

    “All roads lead to Rome” This still holds. In the case of a pope, a man must be of Italian stock to become pope. Visit https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pope-italy/pope-francis-feted-in-italian-ancestral-village-idUSBRE92E0GU20130315

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