x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Church's new Pope must make reform his first priority

The new pope will have critics and detractors, but his background suggests that he is serious about the reforms the Catholic church needs.

White smoke above the Vatican was a welcome sight for the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics contemplating Easter without a Pope. Now here he is, the first non-European in over 1,000 years, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit who has taken the name Francis.

Kremlinologists are in a spin. He is apparently a doctrinal conservative, in keeping with his predecessor, but also belongs to an order which, though founded to counter Protestant "unorthodoxy" in the 16th century, has become something of an independent fifth column within the Church. I have studied with the Jesuits and undergone the rigorous meditations that make up the Spiritual Exercises of the order's founder, St Ignatius Loyola. My experience was of an organisation whose members are highly educated, embrace independent thought and who are unafraid to question theological and canonical principles within their institutions.

A Jesuit naming himself after St Francis, the ascetic founder of the Franciscan order, is also an invitation to speculate. The brown robes of the Franciscan order are emblematic of the renunciation of worldly pleasures and the adoption of absolute humility. Inevitably, however, within hours of his election the new Pope was being linked with alleged complicity in the excesses of the Argentine military junta during that country's so-called "Dirty War".

Just as attempts were made to tie his predecessor to Nazism, so can we expect mounting speculation as to the new Pope's activities during the years when Latin America was torn apart by the Cold War struggle between atheistical Marxism and extreme rightist totalitarianism.

But this is not the place for a treatment of these currently tenuous claims. Mine is the view of a committed Roman Catholic who has seen a decline in the Church's reputation as a moral force due to attempts by its hierarchy to hide, or just hide from, the reality of sexual abuse within an institution that is itself uncompromising on matters governing sexual continence.

In light of this and other challenges facing the Church, I welcome Pope Francis on the following grounds:

In choosing his name he is sending a clear message that he is basing his ministry on Franciscan values of humility. We hear that this is not the first time the cardinals have cast their eyes in his direction. He has apparently avoided attention in previous conclaves but ran out of excuses this time. People who know him speak of his devotion to service and determination to avoid the limelight.

It is a fact that those most reluctant to head up an ailing institution are sometimes those best positioned to revive it.

Pope Francis is, as he told the faithful in St Peter's Square after his election, from "the end of the world". He is not Italian (though he is of Italian descent), is not European and is not, like his predecessor, a learned theologian and thus drawn to the theoretical over the pastoral.

Crucially, he is not of the Curia, the bloated and self perpetuating Vatican civil service that did so little to identify, acknowledge and tackle growing allegations of sexual abuse and which, many contend, finds itself cut off from the secular realities of Catholicism lived in the 21st century.

Pope Francis must make curial reform his first priority. His predecessor, the cerebral Pope Benedict XVI, felt no driving inclination to take this on and before him the "travelling Pope" John Paul II fixed his gaze outward to the Church Universal (though he did famously berate some curial officials upon taking office for wearing chic gold crosses on their lapels).

To reform the Curia and by extension the respective national hierarchies throughout the world, Pope Francis will, at first, need the skills of a CEO rather than a priest. He will need to set up a crack communications team, fire some people, break up the many clerical cliques that fight for pre-eminence, allow more participation in decisions concerning pastoral reforms, investments, doctrinal discipline and so on. And he must do this as he convinces the hierarchy that the Church, especially in the case of sex abuse violations, is not immune from the rule of law.

As an outsider, he is well placed to play the new broom.

The new Pope has a taste for evangelism. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires he was a tireless evangelist, shunning official transportation in favour of a bus as he shuttled around grassroots communities spreading his message. But as an outsider taking up residence in what was once the seat of Christendom, it is to be hoped that he demonstrates a determination to re-evangelise post-Christian Europe and the developed world.

Great cathedrals and basilicas thrown up since ancient times as testament to God's glory are now empty of the faithful. Catholics are going without the sacraments because of the shortage of priests. Having moved for the most part beyond poverty, injustice and starvation, the faithful of the developed world need to rearm their belief system with the spiritual and intellectual weaponry to fight relativism and a brand of militant atheism that has itself taken on many of the characteristics of religion.

What narrative will the man from the end of the world give to Catholics to defend their faith in a time of scandal and spiritual decline?