Thursday, 14 March 2013

We have a Pope!

So we've ended up with a 30-1 outsider apparently. Personally, I was hoping for a long conclave (at least a couple of weeks), which would have shown the watching world that the cardinals were taking the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church seriously. For, like it or not, the fortunes of all Christianity are bound up with the way that things happen for Roman Catholicism. There are simply more of them than of anything else, and so how they behave and the impression they give of Christianity makes a difference. If Rome looks immoral and out of touch, that impression gets transferred to other Christians, even if in a subliminal way.

This is certainly true for those churches like the Church of England which have bishops and liturgy  How much does "the man on the Clapham omnibus" distinguish different Christian groups? Not much I suspect. This was brought home to me last Friday, by a man on the radio talking about the origins of Mothers' Day: "I'm no expert, but I believe it comes from religion," he said. Christianity is lumped with all religions into the category of "weird stuff that nobody serious actually believes."

But if we didn't get a Pope elected after a long drawn out conclave, at least we got a surprise. When the name was announced the crowd outside stayed silent (see at 1'16"). It was a "Who he?" moment, even from the people with an Argentine flag at the front of the crowd (and sign of the times, look at the ipads, too). By contrast, as I recall, the name of Joseph Ratzinger was greeted with an instant cheer (from 6'10").

Now there's no end of information online about this new guy (e.g. here, here, here, some of it good, some of it suggesting murky bits of complicity in Argentina's past), so no need for me to try and say too much. But there are a few things which I like about him, which seem to bode well for the future.

He chose not to wear a red cape, just a simple white cassock. He didn't clasp his hands together as if in a victory salute (unlike Benedict). He started his address with a simple "Brothers and sisters, good evening," and finished it "Good night, and sleep well." He asked  the people gathered in St Peter's Square to pray for and bless him, before he blessed them. There's a common touch here it seems. This is probably not surprising from a Jesuit, for the Jesuits were founded as a missionary order - precisely to reach out to people where they are, rather than imposing from above. Which, it seems to me, is just the kind of thing we need at the moment. But of course, the Jesuits combine this with scholarship - don't expect the common touch to mean dumbing down or wooly liberalism.

Most significant perhaps, is the choice of name: Francis. Of course St Francis has a reputation for humility and concern for the poor (and we'll see whether the new Pope gives new impetus to liberation theology). But he was also reform-minded. Just choosing a name borne by no previous Pope is reform already, and sends a pretty strong signal to the curia that things are going to change.

It remains to be seen whether the common touch can survive the behind-closed-doors battles which no doubt await, or whether, at 76, the new man has the energy to do what needs to be done. But the fact that the cardinals elected him after just five ballots (it took the front-runner Benedict four) suggests that he has a mandate from within the hierarchy to be something different from what went before.

Lat us all pray for Pope Francis. He'll need it.

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