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Why Pope Francis has work cut out in changing Church

By Alf McCreary

Published 01/08/2015

Tough task: Pope Francis is keen to reform the Vatican, but vested interests are opposed to change
Tough task: Pope Francis is keen to reform the Vatican, but vested interests are opposed to change

In this month's edition of the National Geographic Magazine, there is a front page picture with the headline "Pope Francis remakes the Vatican". However, on the inside there is a more subtle headline across two pages, which accords with my own point of view. It reads "Will the Pope change the Vatican, or will the Vatican change the Pope?"

This cuts to the heart of the current debate about the remarkable Pope Francis, who made headlines by being the first Latin-American, and the first Jesuit, to become Pontiff, and the first to adopt the name of St Francis.

He was reputedly a strong contender to succeed Pope John Paul II previously, but the cardinals elected the scholarly German Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, and who was also the first to resign since Pope Gregory II was forced to do so in the mid-15th century.

Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air compared to his studious, gentle and shy predecessor. He has most of the qualities required for an age when leadership is scrutinised in such depth.

He has charisma and a knack for providing the right picture opportunities and soundbites to connect with ordinary people and to consolidate his reputation as a man for the poor. There is no doubt that this public image reflects the views of the private man but, as the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, he faces an enormous task to modernise the Vatican and to make it fit for Church leadership in the 21st century.

He has made a number of headline-making statements. For example, when asked about gay priests, he replied: "Who am I to judge?" This was a pragmatic reply to a loaded, and ecclesiastically difficult, question. Pope Francis did not say that he approved or disapproved of gay priests, and he deliberately left the question - and his options - open. This was a typically clever Jesuitical reply.

What he will actually do about gay priests is another matter, and it is extremely unlikely the Catholic Church will approve of this any time soon.

There are other big issues, such as the role of women in the Catholic Church, the finances of the Vatican Bank and other subjects which are crying out for attention, though to be fair, the Pope seems to be making some headway on the bank clean-up.

At heart, there is a struggle between his reforming zeal, and the vested interests within the Vatican who see any change as a threat, and who will resist many of his serious attempts to make the Catholic Church fit for purpose. At last year's special gathering of cardinals, the Pope received a frosty reception for some of his proposed new measures. That is why he rounded on the cardinals in a Christmas message when he outlined what he regarded as some of the "diseases" of the Vatican Curia, or civil service. He accused them of gossip, worldly profit and other "vainglory" characteristics, which was likely to increase their opposition to him, rather than reduce it.

There seems to be a battle of ideologies going on, and Pope Francis, at 78, does not have time on his side. He is undoubtedly a good man, but his major contribution may be to sow the seeds of change that will grow to fruition when he has gone.

For the time being, he is connecting with millions of people worldwide who see him as a person who is genuinely on the side of the poor and the helpless. This is exactly what all Churches should show themselves to be about.

Belfast Telegraph

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