Can the love in last for the popular Pope?

By Catherine Field

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

A month after his election as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis I is riding a wave of popularity that would leave many politicians drooling.

The 76-year-old Pontiff has already notched up several firsts. He is the first South American Pope, the first from the Jesuit order, and the first to choose the name of Italy's patron saint, who took a vow of poverty in his service to God.

By spurning much of the flunkeydom and the monarchical trappings of office that have accumulated over 2000 years of papacy, he's projecting an image of humility that, say some, may coax disaffected young Catholics back into the fold.

After his March 13 election, the newly minted Pope preferred to address the cardinals from the floor of the room, not from a specially prepared dais. The next morning, he refused the papal limousine and rode in a minibus back to the residence where he had been staying in order to pay his room bill. The following week, he phoned the owner of a newspaper kiosk in Buenos Aires to cancel papers that were being delivered each morning to his former residence there as a cardinal.

The ruby-red loafers and ermine-lined cloaks his predecessor wore have been ditched, replaced by black work shoes and a simple cassock.

For the time being, he has shunned the papal penthouse of more than a dozen rooms, staff quarters and a terrace overlooking Rome in favour of a two-room suite at a Vatican residence and takes his meals with others in the communal dining room.

At Easter, in his first papal address, he denounced the failings of the world's economies, the widening gulf between rich and poor and condemned unbridled capitalism as "greed looking for easy gain". Instead of washing the feet of 12 cardinals who represent the apostles, he performed the ceremony on the feet of 12 young prisoners, including two female inmates, one Muslim.

The emphasis on modesty and compassion is firing the huge crowds in St Peter's Square and Catholics much farther afield. A United States survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 84 per cent of Catholic Americans give the new Pope either a "favourable"or "very favourable" rating, 17 per cent higher than in a similar poll conducted after Benedict XVI took office in 2005.

"Francis comes across as somebody who is really authentic and doesn't try and put himself above everybody else. He's projecting a new style of leadership in the church which is less pompous and this is attractive to young people," Thomas Reese, an American Jesuit priest and expert on the Vatican, told the Herald.

"Talking about the poor, protecting the poor and caring for them, protecting the environment, talking about working for peace and inter-religious understanding - all of this resonates with young people much more than some pompous guy shaking his finger at them and telling them to behave."

The Pope's actions and his appeals for social justice have resonated with the public in a time of austerity and disillusionment with politicians. But can the love-in last?

Francis' in-tray is stuffed with files marked "priority". They include how the Church should punish and atone for paedophile clerics; overhauling the Vatican's toxic, in-bred bureaucracy, the Curia; whether the priesthood's celibate traditions should be relaxed; how to deal with a clamour for reforms on sexuality, contraception and women's rights.

Not all these issues must be dealt with instantly, but all are potentially explosive in an organisation as conservative and ponderous as it is ancient. If the new Pope is serious about addressing them - instead of kicking them down the road - he'll need to show substance, not just style, say analysts. With that, comes risk. As the saying goes: whenever you decide, you divide.

The status of women in the Church is arguably the Pope's first big challenge. Last year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the Vatican unit that enforces dogma - was fiercely attacked after it rebuked the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which encompasses about 80 per cent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States. The nuns were upbraided for pushing "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith". Much of the nuns' work involves community programmes such as helping in education, health care and assisting the poor.

"We're still very much in the honeymoon period. Let things calm down after Easter and I think the next three months, maybe even six months, and by then we'll know," said Pat Brown of British lobby group Catholic Women's Ordination, which wants women to be admitted to the priesthood. "But if, by then, there's going to be more of the same, God help us."

William Oddie, a commentator for the Catholic Herald, said that beneath the Pope's man-of-the-people exterior lies a conservative on issues of theology, doctrine and homosexuality. "We're not now 1mm closer to the ordination of women to the priesthood, and of course, the liberals know it perfectly well."

The coming months are unlikely to see papal pronouncements on the big issues. In late July the Pope attends the World Youth Day festival in Rio de Janeiro.

A good early indicator of where the Pope will take the Church may come from the bishops he appoints and if he follows his predecessors in suppressing debate among theologians, say commentators.

"There might be some little sign about the way he is going," said Brown. "It seems to me over the last few years, the Church has been going backwards quite fast. He's got to stop that ... It's like driving a car in reverse. First you have to get it into neutral."

"The expectations are too high, they always are too high," cautioned Reese. "Jesus founded the Church and then left it to human beings to run, and nobody is perfect."

- NZ Herald

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