Christian example of Pope Francis provides a contrast with the graceless

Respect for conscience appears to have returned to the Catholic Church

Those who have difficulty with miracles may be feeling challenged after the past six weeks. It now seems it is the probable that takes a little longer, not the impossible.

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was, well, unbelievable, even "bizarre, unprecedented". But who would ever have believed his successor could be a Francis "from the ends of the Earth"? A Jesuit, an also-ran from the 2005 conclave, 76 years old, 50-1 at Paddy Power ?

You could understand the confusion of the Italian bishops’ conference. Two hours after Francis was elected it issued a statement congratulating the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Scola, on becoming pope. An epic mistake.

It arose, it seems, because the Italians had prepared messages of congratulation for about nine men-most-likely-to. The person responsible pressed the wrong button.


The word in Rome is that Francis secured 90 votes on the conclave's fifth vote, with Cardinal Scola and the former Archbishop of Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet runners-up.

Pope Francis is, of course, a Catholic, as the usual graceless ones here in Ireland rushed to point out with such stretched wit so the rest of us would know he concurred with their line on abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception – teachings that owe more to Greek philosophy than to anything Jesus said. He never addressed any of those topics.

The poorest of the poor
No, the great surprise about Francis is that he is so Christian. He walks the walk. So many prelates are content to just talk the talk. He eschewed the trappings of his office to live frugally in Buenos Aires while committed to and spending much of his time among the poorest of the poor in the city's slums.

Our graceless ones have never shown much concern for the poor or issues of social justice. They prefer the arid don’ts of dogma, as they interpret it, to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty.

The pope promises to remind such narrow types there is more to Christianity than the letter of the law and while people may not live by bread alone they must have bread to live. His demeanour promises reorientation of a church that has lost its way, starting with reform at the top.

But issues of governance are of secondary matters for most Catholics. What inspires them is Francis’s simplicity, his ordinary crucifix, the black shoes, that he pays his bills personally, his humour, the spontaneous asides.

Above all, his plea – “How I wish for a church that is poor and for the poor!” – has found deep resonance in Catholic pews all over the world. He said it at that remarkable first audience on March 16th when he met the world’s media.

But what most moved many at that encounter were his final words. They indicated a return to a church that no longer saw itself as the preserve of a self-styled pure elite but could again be home to the great hotch-potch of humanity, as under Pope John XXIII.

Pope Francis told the gathering: "Many of you don't belong to the Catholic Church, others are not believers. From my heart I impart this blessing, in silence, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each one but knowing that each of you is a child of God: May God bless you."

True respect for conscience appears to have made a return in the Catholic Church. Francis's words were followed through last Tuesday when US vice-president Joe Biden and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi received Communion at the Mass to celebrate his inauguration, despite their pro-choice positions on abortion.

"Tús maith leath na h-oibre," as the old Irish saying goes: a good start is half the work. Pope Francis has had a good start.

Patsy McGarry is religious affairs correspondent