Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Frankly, Pope must ring changes like his namesake

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

The cabbies were quick to dub him 'Pope Frankie', and, doubtless, most of the Franks and Francises and Franciscos in Christendom and beyond will be pleased to have a papal namesake.

Interesting, too, that it has been clarified by the Holy See that the papal name of Francis is honouring St Francis of Assisi, rather than St Francis Xavier – two very different characters.

Francis of Assisi is an ecumenical figure, being pre-Reformation, and accepted by all Christians – and widely revered, even among secularists, for his love of animals and nature.

Francis Xavier, by contrast, was a brilliant Jesuit figure, who had much resonance in the Hispanic and Portuguese empires, but his profile wouldn't have the same ecumenical appeal as Francis of Assisi.

It was striking how frequently commentators everywhere underlined the universal importance of this papal election. Repeatedly, we were reminded that this organisation is a focal point for more than a billion Catholics.

The papacy of Francis has been widely welcomed as a shift away from old Europe and towards the New World, which is as it should be: and it will be a gratifying boost for the Argentine people that their countryman is the first South American pontiff.

President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina is not a fan: she has locked horns with Cardinal Bergoglio over his opposition to gay marriage – calling it "something out of the Inquisition".

Suggestions that Cardinal Bergoglio did not behave honourably during General Galtieri's dictatorship are thought to have come from Cristina, or sources close to the president.

But many who know Argentina regard President Kirchner as an airhead – still obsessing about the Falkland Islands even after more than 99% of the inhabitants voted to remain British.

Politicians change their tune, however, when the electorate changes its mind, and the popular pride that Argentines take in Pope Francis may alter the mood music from Buenos Aires.

Many Argentines, like Jorge Mario Bergoglio, are from an Italian background and will identify with him: like him, many Argentines are bilingual in Spanish and Italian.

It is incorrect to call Argentina a 'third world' country: it is a sophisticated and developed society, one which has often been ill-served by its politicians.

When Pope Francis was born, in the 1930s, it was an enormously rich country, before Argentina's wealth was wasted by incompetent and bombastic politicians.

Argentina has a strong Marian tradition and the country roadsides are dotted with shrines to the Blessed Virgin – very similar to those you would see in Irish country places.

Will Pope Francis turn out to be the humble, reforming pope of social justice that some predict?

We cannot know. Events can be unpredictable; and as many a politician has found out in power, responsibility can change perspective.

But Francis's humble attitude is winning and his pastoral experience may be the defining characteristic of his papacy.

He certainly has much to change, if he's going to be a reforming pontiff. Perhaps the single biggest change he could make, and pronto, is to abolish the rule of compulsory celibacy and to ordain more married men.

It's been suggested that a Jesuit may be freer to make that move, since Jesuits have a less rigid approach to the celibacy issue.

Let's hope that Pope Francis is as independent-minded of the pontifical establishment as his namesake in 13th century Assisi.

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