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The difference one pope can make


Pope FrancisAmid the general sense of relief and even euphoria over the election of Pope Francis, a Pentecostal friend of mine wondered, what difference can one man make? Given the vast size of the Catholic Church, the diversity of its structures and personnel, what can this one man, already in his mid-70s, do to make real and significant changes? It is a good question.

The first thing to appreciate is the shift in style, some of it symbolic, but not without impact. As the counting of the papal votes was concluded, and the Master of Ceremonies approached Francis with the traditional red gown, he reportedly said 'No thank you, Monsignore ... Carnival time is over!' Everything about the man speaks of simplicity of life and deep personal integrity. These are deeply engrained habits of a lifetime that not even election to the papacy will change.

This symbolic shift will have a real impact because behind it stands a man of substance and integrity. Already curial officials are toning down the trappings of office and using less ostentatious forms of transport in Rome. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he railed against clericalism and careerism in the Church.

Not a few cardinals will be wondering where the chips will fall in the new curial appointments, because Francis has a new agenda, not governed by stubborn insistence on orthodoxy as the sole criteria for appointment, regardless of talent. Rather, as he has signalled, his first priority is a concern for the poor.

This new round of curial appointments to head congregations in Rome will be the first sign of real change beyond these symbolic acts. With the priorities he has indicated we can expect more cardinals from the Third World to fill these offices, people who know what poverty means and will place the poor at the heart of the Church's concerns.

This concern for the poor will also drive a new ecological agenda, something already signalled in his post-election press conference and in the homily of his inauguration mass. It is the poor who will suffer the most from ecological issues such as climate change. This is what Caritas Internationale will tell him, if he does not already know.

We can also expect less fussiness about the liturgy, something that flourished with Benedict XVI. Like many Jesuits of my acquaintance, Pope Francis seems to favour a lower liturgy without all the trappings. In a mass he celebrated in a parish in Rome after his election he wore a simple bishop's mitre, sat in an ordinary chair and personally greeted the people after the mass.

A colleague here at ACU has read all his homilies given at various masses so far — each one just a page or two long, over in a few minutes, not theological treatises of 30–40 minutes. Yet each communicated a simple yet powerful message. The inaugural mass gave a clear indication of this shift. With a captive audience of millions, the homily was less than 15 minutes and in language anyone could understand.

Perhaps too we shall see the end of the 40,000-plus word encyclical, at least for a while.

There are currently about 57 cardinals over the age of 72. If Pope Francis is in office for eight years or more (and I think he too will retire about the age of 85) he will have a direct hand in replacing each of these cardinals. Just as John Paul II shaped the college of cardinals for the election of Benedict, so Francis is likely to shape the college for the election of his successor. This is a long term impact on the life of the Church.

On the issue of clergy sexual abuse, which so preoccupies the Church in the west, we have few indications. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires his record is unknown. But one media source has cited an interview in which he indicated a policy of zero-tolerance towards abusive priests. We shall see how this unfolds in the coming months.

Recently in Eureka Street I argued for a pope to take the Church in a new direction of greater humility, respect and silence, echoing the stance of Cardinal Taglia prior to the conclave. Already the signs are there: a pope of recognisable humility, of genuine respectfulness of others but especially for the poor, and, if not of silence, at least less wordiness. Each of these words, humility, respect, and silence, appeared in his inaugural homily.

And of course he could also call for a new council for the Church. Stranger things have happened! 

Neil Ormerod headshotNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. His latest book, with Cynthia Crysdale, is Creator God, Evolving World (Fortress Press, 2013). 

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

"...the homily was less than 15 minutes and in language anyone could understand." Let's hope that he rescinds the decision to impose on English speakers the olde/new Mass translation. Cardinal Pell said that only English and Portuguese Masses used the term "and also with you". I've discovered a third - Czech. Of course the 3 million Czech speakers are small fry compared with the several hundred million English and Portuguese speakers. I guess the Curia thought it could safely overlook the Czechs in its quest to bring national churches (particularly the U.S.) to heel. Go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62Ky1zHf0Gc and you will also hear a long Gospel acclamation in the form of an excellent rendition of Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus.

Bruce S | 20 March 2013  

Are you stupid or simply naive to repeat such rubbish as "'No thank you, Monsignore ... Carnival time is over!" ? Will your next article treat us to the banishment of Cardinal Law story? Honestly, you ought to know better. I think it's wonderful that so many have felt a human connection with this man of God and, at the same time, profoundly sad that people who ought to know better (such as yourself?) continue to project their own agendas on Pope Francis. We have seen, very clearly, that Francis is his own man, not the image some compulsively project on him.

Richard Smith | 21 March 2013  

Neil, Thank you for those those thoughtful insights into the future patterns 'one man' has followed and will set. Its a most uplifting article. We the 'fold' have a great sense of joy that there is such a move to action as is unfolding. Jesus certainly lives more obviously in the Vatican of today.

Rosa McManamey | 21 March 2013  

Thank you Neil for another thoughtful and insightful article. Symbols and symbolic actions do send powerful messages and thus far I think it is fair to say that the signs from Pope Francis are positive. There is a sense of new hope and optimism in the Church and beyond. There is still much work to be done in cleaning up historical and ongoing messes around clerical sexual abuse that have been and continue to be a major cause of scandal. Let us hope the carnival is indeed over and the clowns put down their masks and take off their make-up. Jesus was a tradesman before he was a preacher; Peter, a fisherman and Matthew a public servant in the department of Treasury. Paul made tents to supplement his income while engaged in rabbinic study. We are not in first century Palestine and we do not need to go back there but perhaps taking public transport, paying your own hotel bills and remembering the Lord in the simple act of breaking of bread at table are signs of the Holy Spirit at work. Whatever happens from here I doubt it will be dull.

John Francis Collins | 21 March 2013  

Richard, it is usual to debate ideas not attack the man. You might like to consider this next time you let loose.

Jennifer Anne Herrick | 21 March 2013  

Prof Ormerod may perhaps begin by demythologising the urban and orbit myths and post conclave accretions settling upon Pope Francis. Andrea Tornielli, La Stampa commentator['Inside the Vatican'] noted: "According to one of these rumours, straight after his election, Francis apparently refused to wear the red velvet mozzetta trimmed with (synthetic) ermine, saying to the Master of Papal Ceremonies, Guido Marini: “You can wear it! The carnival’s over.” A rude and boorish comment to make to the Master of Ceremonies. As far as Vatican Insider has learnt, said comment was never made. As Marini placed the mozzetta on Francis, the Pope simply said: “I would prefer you didn’t.” No reference was made the carnival and no humiliating comment was made against the Master of Ceremonies. NCR's John Allen earmarks the above as "urban legend".[such mythological Pope Francis folk stories do proliferate [eg re "dirty war" genre]to be taken cum 'grano salis'.

Father John George | 29 March 2013  

Like Pope Francis, Pope Benedict was and is simple and humble. Moreover, he was not "fussy" about the liturgy, any more than God was when He gave meticulous instruction on liturgical worship in the Pentateuch. There's a not-too-subtle difference between being fussy and being humbly respectful of the tradition that some Jesuits (inter alia) might benefit from heeding.

HH | 02 April 2013  

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