Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

When in Rome... Pope will need support from all sides

Last weekend I visited the ruins in Rome, which included the pathetic performance of the Irish rugby team in losing to Italy.

The least said about the game the better, but on the previous day my five fellow rugby fans and I visited St Peter's Square, some 36 hours after Pope Francis had been elected.

My companions know as much about theology as I do about rugby hookers, but we thought it was appropriate to visit St Peter's at such an historic time. It was much busier than usual, with large crowds queuing to enter the Basilica, and there was an air of expectancy about the place.

There were large posters of Pope Francis already on display near the beautiful Piazza Navona, as well as fresh photographs of the new pontiff in tourist shops.

We did not get to see the new Pope in person but I was very much aware of his presence. On the Sunday morning I attended the 8am service in a large church near our hotel, which turned out to be the famous basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

The service was held in a stunningly beautiful 5th century chapel which is all part of the timeless beauty of Rome.

Later on, I discovered that one of the new Pope's first actions had been to visit this church for private prayer and meditation, and the thought that he and I had walked on the same ground only days after his appointment made the whole thing more personal for me.

Here was an elderly man suddenly thrust into high office, and no doubt feeling so vulnerable that he felt the need to slip away privately to sustain himself spiritually for the enormous task ahead.

So far Pope Francis has made a good impression, and he is already showing the common touch.

He still faces the traps about his attitude to the Falkland Islands and also the role of the Roman Catholic Church during the vicious rule of the Argentinian junta, but with typical Jesuitical skill he should be able to sidestep these easily.

He has the much bigger challenge of steering the Roman Catholic Church in the right direction and with limited time at his disposal.

At the moment he is going through a ‘honeymoon period’, but sooner rather than later people will be asking what he going to do about the thorny issues of clerical sexual child abuse, cover-ups, clerical celibacy, same-sex relationships, and about moving the Church into the modern world.

However, his early emphasis on the world's poor, while worthy, is hardly news.

All church leaders have, or ought to have, these issues high on their list, and even though Pope Francis is frugal and holy, these qualities were shared by Pope Benedict who was not a great leader.

What the Roman Catholic Church needs right now is a strong figure who can stamp his authority quickly on the institution, root out the corruption and hypocrisy at its heart, and create an openness and trust which will convince a needy world of the modern relevance of the Christian Gospel in daily life.

However, the Catholic Church can no longer afford to think in centuries, or even in decades. It badly needs a whole new Reformation, and much sooner than most of its members realise.

Pope Francis may well start this in motion, but he desperately needs everyone's good wishes to make a real impact, including those of non-Roman Catholics and people of every faith and none. The Catholic Church cannot rely solely on its historic past to secure its future.

 

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