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Jury still out on Francis the game-changer

  • 13 March 2014

March is a wet month in Rome. It was raining when Pope Francis was elected on 13 March 2013, and it was pouring raining again when I was back there last week in preparation for his first anniversary.

But nothing seems to dampen media enthusiasm for Francis and his approach to what he calls his role as Bishop of Rome. Catholics committed to the renewal initiated by Vatican II feel that he has given them a new lease of life, and the well-informed, Rome-based journalist Robert Mickens, who writes for The Tablet, told me that Francis has already come 'too far' to retreat now to a more cautious stance.

Certainly he has already decisively changed the pattern established by his predecessors. No longer is the emphasis on the dangers of secularism and relativism; he has also shifted the focus of the Church away from the ridiculous 'culture wars' between false dichotomies which saw Vatican II either as a 'rupture' with the past, or as eternally unchanged 'continuity'.

Francis' emphases are in tune with the genuine Catholic tradition focusing on God's mercy, the love of Jesus, conscience, and the Church's pastoral care for the vulnerabilities and sins embedded in the human condition. He is humble, benign, pastorally concerned, committed to social justice and media friendly. He has embraced an inclusive, small 'c' catholic approach that includes everyone. That is no mean achievement in just one year.

Nevertheless amid all the enthusiasm for Francis' approach, we need to keep ourselves grounded. The key mistake of post-Vatican II Catholics was to fail to insist that the Council's theological insights be enshrined in ecclesiastical structures. Progressives think that you change things by talking a lot. And while endless gab-fests went on, shrewd conservatives were shoring up the old structures so that they could be cemented into place during the long John Paul II papacy.

While the Council called for a new vision of the people of God, lay participation, collegiality, and emphasis on the local church, Pope Wojtyla used his globe-trotting media super-stardom to introduce a centralisation that was unprecedented in church history.

The lesson here is that Francis will be nothing more than a flash in the pan if church structures are not changed. Sure, he has set up his 'Gang of Eight' cardinals to advise him on reform of the Vatican. But so far they have focused on cleaning up the Vatican Bank and the financial structures of