The people’s pontiff brings change to the Vatican

Pope Francis has revolutionised perceptions of the Catholic Church

 Pope Francis  appears on the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica on day he was elected, one year ago. Photograph: Getty

Pope Francis appears on the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica on day he was elected, one year ago. Photograph: Getty

Thu, Mar 13, 2014, 06:31

In keeping with the tone of his papacy, there will no formal celebration in the Vatican today to mark the anniversary of the election of Pope Francis exactly one year ago.

Instead, the pontiff will be in the Alban Hills, south of Rome, for a Lenten retreat of prayer and meditation.

From the moment Pope Francis stepped on to the balcony of St Peter’s on this day exactly one year ago, nothing has been the same. His simple, emblematic “ Buona Sera ” was the sign that things in the Catholic Church were about to change – perhaps not utterly, but certainly radically.

This assertion may be puzzling for outside observers. The church under Francis remains a bastion of conservative teaching, especially on sexual mores.

Only last week, he said in an interview with Italian daily Corriere Della Sera , that the Catholic Church is “perhaps the only institution to have moved with . . . transparency and responsibility” to combat child sex abuse. This hardly sounds like radical change.

However, while Pope Francis appears to look at the sex abuse phenomenon through smudged spectacles, there has been such a tsunami of radical decisions, poignant statements, innovative appointments and symbolic gestures in this first year of his pontificate that it is impossible to deny that a revolution of sorts has begun.

The first and most obvious change that Francis has enacted concerns his teaching of the gospel, his ministry to the faithful. Not only is he the pope who three days after his election said he wanted “a church of the poor, for the poor” but he is also the pope who sees the church as a “field hospital” that must “heal wounds”.

In one fell swoop, church teaching has moved from the one of cruel discipline fame to “cuddle and muddle” or something like it.

It is not that Francis intends to introduce radical doctrinal change – that may come but it will be much further down the road – it is that his vision of Christianity is that of a church that embraces the sinner, clothes the poor and welcomes the marginalised.

“And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” (Luke 5:31)

Furthermore, the Francis message of compassionate pastoral care has been delivered as normality. As he said last week: “To portray the pope as a sort of superman, a type of star, it just seems offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, who cries, who sleeps soundly and who has friends like everybody else . . . in short, a normal person.”


Voice of the poor
Yet, that “normal” person has become one of the most visible, most influential figures on the planet. It is not just that three million people turned out for him in Brazil last summer or that US magazine Time named him “Person Of The Year”.

It is also that he has become a potent voice for the have-nots. Such were his criticisms of deregulated capitalism in his November Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium ( The Joy of the Gospe l) of last November that American right-wingers, such as Tea Party advocate Rush Limbaugh, dubbed him a Marxist.

By now, people all over the world have become familiar with his symbolic gestures as well as his memorable words. Gestures such as choosing to live in the Santa Maria religious house rather than in the Apostolic Palace, such driving around in a Ford Focus, such as eschewing a gold cross for his own old iron one, such washing the feet of women and Muslims last Easter – these and more have now become part of the global iconography.

Likewise, statements that range from “St Peter did not have a bank account” to “Who am I to judge” (on gays) to his denunciation of the “globalisation of indifference” reverberated all around the world, Christian and otherwise.

That last remark was made on his first pastoral visit outside the Vatican to the Mediterranean “boat people” island of Lampedusa last July.

Pope Francis was making a huge point. Not only has the “periphery” found a powerful advocate but, even more importantly, this first post-modern pope from a 13 million-strong megalopolis such as Buenos Aires was telling the “centre” to embrace the outsiders or else face serious trouble.

Similarly, he has spent much of this first year talking to the Vatican curia, telling them that they too must reach out to the periphery, that the Holy See is called to serve the local church, rather than boss it about.

It is unclear if everyone in the Vatican is on the same page on this issue. We will learn much more as we observe a curia reform process that has already radically overhauled the often controversial Vatican Bank.

If Francis and his G8 council of predominantly non-European cardinals can pull off that reform, then issues such as women priests, communion for the divorced, contraception and the clerical sex abuse crisis are likely to be prominently on his radar.

The election of Francis as pope a year ago was initially the expression of an “anything is better than an Italian” sentiment in a College of Cardinals shaken by the Vatileaks and other Holy See scandals.

What the cardinals may not have understood is that they were getting a pope capable in a very short time of “rehabilitating” the international image of the church. It remains to be seen if he can change not just its image but also the Catholic Church itself.

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