Tasks and challenges facing new pope are daunting

There are indications Francis I may be more pragmatist than doctrinaire

White smoke rises from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican last night, indicating a new pope has been elected. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

White smoke rises from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican last night, indicating a new pope has been elected. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

 

The tasks facing Pope Francis I are truly enormous and, while just about everyone wishes him well, you do have to wonder how a man of 76 will be able to address them in the time and manner required.

Apart from his appealing, genuinely humble personality, what is most welcome about Francis’s election is that it would appear the cardinal electors successfully sidelined those most favoured by the Curia.

This means that, in some of his first acts – the appointment of a secretary of state and heads of various congregations – Pope Francis will initiate a long awaited reform of a Curia that got out of hand during the Benedict pontificate.

Reform of church governance is a hugely important issue for the church but that is really nuts and bolts stuff. It is secondary to the fact that Catholicism is in serious, some suggest terminal, decline in that area of the western world once known as Christendom. It has lost the two younger generations.

We need go no further than Ireland to illustrate this.

In the 2011 census 84 per cent of the population of the Republic ticked the “Roman Catholic ” box. Yet weekly Mass attendance is as low as 30 to 33 per cent and falling. Still good by Europe an standards, but look at the age profile of those attending church services.

Further, in urban areas, that attendance is as low as 2 or 3 per cent. More and more Catholics in Europe and the developed world are only nominally so. They attend church for funerals, first Communions, and weddings – and less of this last, as upwards of a quarter of marriages now take place in civil settings. That figure, too, is rising.

New mission territory
So Europe, Ireland, the developed world is becoming mission territory where the Catholic Church is concerned. Its difficulties are compounded by its ageing cohort of clergy.

In Ireland the average age of a Catholic priest is 64. The church faces an immediate personnel crisis where its clergy are concerned. But what has tended to alienate people, particularly young people, in recent decades has been the tenor of church pronouncements which seemed in so many cases to prefer rigidity to compassion. The letter mattered more than the spirit.

Pope Francis, while being a loyal son of the church, would appear to be less of a “don’t” man. In the wider, developing world, where he comes from, Catholicism is growing.

However, in South America it faces challenges from Protestant evangelicals, particularly in Brazil where their influence is growing rapidly, often at Catholic expense.

In Africa there has been increasing slaughter and persecution of Christians, with the spread of a more militant Islam, particularly in Nigeria.

There have been worrying incidents in Egypt and there is anxiety about what will happen to Christians in Syria when the Assad regime falls.

I leave probably his greatest challenge, particularly in the western world, to last. He has an enormous task when it comes to restoring institutional church credibility where child protection is concerned.

Pope John Paul ignored the issue. Francis’s immediate predecessor Pope Benedict made laudable efforts to address it, but there is so much more to do.

The church must come clean, from the top down, on this issue. That will mean removing powerful and prominent personalities from the Curia, men who have very questionable records on this matter.

Francis must also ensure that similar actions are taken against leading figures elsewhere in the church who have been involved in cover-ups. Nor must their standing down be of such a nature that it, in real terms, seems more like promotion, as happened with Cardinal Law of Boston.

Plum jobs
When Law resigned over his mishandling of the abuse issue, he was “rewarded” with one of the plum posts in the church, that of Archpriest at the Mary Major basilica in Rome. Similarly, when the notorious abuser Fr Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, was removed from ministry by Pope Benedict to a life of penance in 2006, he ended up in luxury in Florida. That won’t do.

The church must be seen to be serious about this issue. Otherwise it will never recover in the West and faces a similar fate when the same issue emerges from the shadows in the developing world.