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The difference one pope can make

  • 21 March 2013

Amid 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