Focus: Is Francis really the Pope of the people?

FRANCIS has been the answer to Scottish Catholics’ prayers, but after a year transforming the Vatican in his image, has he raised expectations too high, asks Dani Garavelli
A balloon reading "I Love Pope Francis" at a papal visit Rio de Janeiro in 2013. Picture: GettyA balloon reading "I Love Pope Francis" at a papal visit Rio de Janeiro in 2013. Picture: Getty
A balloon reading "I Love Pope Francis" at a papal visit Rio de Janeiro in 2013. Picture: Getty

IT WAS a small gesture, but one that signalled the start of a revolution. Minutes after his election, Jorge Mario Bergoglio – now Pope Francis – rejected the ermine-trimmed red cape worn by his predecessors. In fact, Bergoglio had articulated his template for change hours earlier. Given five minutes to set out his vision for the future, he told the other cardinals in the conclave that the Church needed to stop focusing in on itself. In a religion built on symbolism, however, it was the rejection of the cape that demonstrated he meant business.

With the Church in crisis after a series of scandals, he made it clear it was time for a shift in emphasis: from excess to frugality, from sexual morality to social justice, and from arrogance to humility. Appearing on the balcony in St Peter’s Square, he spoke in Italian not Latin and asked his flock to bless him as opposed to the other way round. His transformation from the head of a much reviled institution to the secular media’s favourite religious leader had begun.

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A year on, and it’s possible to see Pope Francis’s tenure as a succession of such gestures. From refusing to move into the Papal Palace, to embracing the disfigured, to spending Easter at a juvenile detention centre, he has done his best to return the Church to what many of the faithful believe is the core principle of Christianity: love for mankind and particularly for the marginalised.

In doing so, he has achieved a PR coup that was inconceivable under his predecessor Joseph Ratzinger: he has rehabilitated a Church beset by scandal. If he is uncomfortable with his rock star status, he has done little to discourage it. More people are crowding in to St Peter’s in Rome for his Wednesday audiences than ever before, with attendances at Papal events trebling last year to 6.6 million, and he has graced the covers of Time and Rolling Stone magazines. “Catholics have been energised,” says Elena Curti, deputy editor of The Tablet.

It has become known as the Pope Francis effect. And it has had a marked impact in Scotland. A year ago, when white smoke poured from the Sistine Chapel chimney, the Church here was a laughing stock. Other countries had also been left reeling by sex scandals, but the revelation that Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who had spoken out so often and so intemperately on the issue of homosexuality, had engaged in “inappropriate behaviour” with priests left the Church humiliated and the faithful shattered.

“I don’t think there is any national Church which has benefited more from Pope Francis’s election than the Scottish Church,” says Ronnie Convery, director of communications for the Glasgow archdiocese. “The day he was elected, we were being condemned for hypocrisy, under fire from all sides for all sorts of things. Our own people were angry and confused, the Bishops Conference was decimated – only four or five bishops left. At that point, there was no country whose Catholic Church was on its knees as Scotland’s was.

“Yet, Pope Francis has successfully buoyed up the Church here as he has done elsewhere. I see it again and again, even among non-practising Catholics. For the first time in a decade, they seem proud, they have a spring in their step, they say: ‘Pope Francis – he’s some man’.”

It would be difficult to make the case that the first Jesuit Pope has filled empty pews or caused Church coffers to swell – many Catholic parishes are still in debt. What his Papacy seems to have achieved, however, is to offset the negative impact from the O’Brien scandal.

“When the story broke, the expectation among many was we could hit a precipice,” Convery says. “People would stop coming to mass, they wouldn’t pay their collection envelopes, they would pull their children out of Catholic schools. In fact, none of that happened, which means one of two things: either people weren’t as affected by the O’Brien thing as we feared or, while there were some who were affected enough to withdraw their support, others have been brought back by the positivity that has come with Pope Francis.”

From a Scottish perspective, Pope Francis’s shift from a hardline stance on sexual morality to prioritising issues such as social justice, came in the nick of time. After years in which its leaders obsessed about abortion and homosexuality, the O’Brien scandal stripped the Catholic Church in Scotland of any credibility on such matters. Recent pronouncements – on the Equal Marriage Act, for example – may be a reiteration of the Church’s traditional stance, but they have been couched in measured, as opposed to provocative, terms.

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Still, from an outsider’s perspective, the situation for the Catholic Church in Scotland remains bleak. The O’Brien scandal continues to defy all attempts to draw a line under it and a shortage of priests means parishes up and down the country face closure or merger. Last week, in perhaps the most manifest sign of the Church in Scotland’s predicament, it emerged that the archdiocese of Glasgow is bracing itself to lose half its parishes. In Galloway, the problem is already acute, with several priests already looking after more than one church. Glasgow has just two men currently in seminaries, Motherwell has seven and Paisley three.

Some have suggested Pope Francis’s revolution is more style than substance. He may have shrugged his shoulders and asked “who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests, he may have intimated he would like to see women in more prominent roles, but what has he actually done to alter the Church’s stance on anything? Given his age (he is 77), Catholicism’s resistance to change and the tide of secularisation, is he likely to do more than cause a hiatus in the religion’s seemingly inexorable First World decline?

Few people who have observed Pope Francis’s first year would accuse him of being insincere when it comes to inequality. According to Rolling Stone magazine his pronouncements on poverty led Sarah Palin to describe him as “kinda liberal” and Rush Limbaugh to call him a Marxist. But it was his first “apostolic exhortation”, Evangelii Gaudium, which marked him out as engaged in more than just gesture politics. A blistering ­attack on capitalism, it owed a debt to his experiences of the slums and the ­liberation theology of his Argentine homeland. Nor is there much dubiety over his compassion towards those who are suffering as a result of their own ­personal circumstances: the sick, the drug-addicted and those who have found it impossible to live by the Church’s rules.

“He has used the image of a field hospital more than once,” Curti says. “He feels we have a big emergency situation on our hands. People are hurting and suffering and the Church’s first priority must be to help them, to heal their wounds, and so he talks about mercy, he talks about love, he talks about the message of the Gospel.”

With the gap between the hierarchy and the laity on matters such as pre-marital sex growing, Pope Francis launched a survey on the challenges modern families face, in advance of a synod later this year. While some have questioned the value of the exercise – particularly given his recent praise for Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae which reaffirmed a ban on artificial contraception – others see it as a genuine attempt to canvas people’s views. There is a widespread belief it will lead to a change in the rules to allow those who are divorced and remarried to take communion.

Pope Francis also seems committed to reforming the curia. It was leaks exposing the power struggle at the heart of the Vatican that led to Pope Benedict’s resignation. Within weeks of his election, Bergoglio had appointed eight cardinals, the so-called G8, to begin the process of restructuring.

On the other hand, he has already ruled out the ordination of women priests, and, as Curti points out, there is not a single woman on the new Council for the Economy comprised of eight cardinals and seven lay-people. Nor, given the slow speed at which the Catholic Church grinds, does it seem likely Pope Francis will get very far on the issue of celibacy, though married Anglican priests have already been accepted.

Even his record on child abuse is ambiguous; he set up a task force to look into it, but only after the Vatican spurned requests from the UN to provide information on how it was tackling the problem.

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Others question the scale and scope of the Francis revolution. Professor John Haldane, a Scottish academic who is an adviser to the Vatican, recently said in an interview: “It is a mistake, I believe, to suppose that Pope Francis has a kind of ‘master plan’ which he in the process of implementing. Certainly, there are things he hopes to achieve – including an improvement in the central bureaucracy of the church, and the orientation of bishops away from Church craft to pastoral leadership of priests and laity. But these are rather general aims and quite how and how far they may be realised depends on factors over which he may have relatively little control.”

Whatever his long-term legacy, no-one would seek to claim Pope Francis hasn’t given the Church a shot in the arm. In Scotland, too, things have been improving. Since the priests who claim O’Brien coerced them into abusive relationships have made fresh complaints to the Vatican, the affair continues to cast a pall. But, Haldane points out, the leadership has been strengthened through the appointment of a series of “younger” bishops and archbishops – Philip Tartaglia, 63, Archbishop of Glasgow, Leo Cushley, 53, now Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews and John Keenan, 49, now Bishop of Paisley. Born into the post-Vatican II Church, Keenan is particularly significant. “He has seen and experienced the changes and challenges and knows that the old ‘established’ Church is over,” Haldane says. “Scotland is back to being missionary territory and it’s a matter of engaging the culture as it is, since Catholics, especially young ones who are lapsing at ever earlier ages, are themselves immersed in that.”

Vocations have gone up slightly. And eight young men from the Glasgow archdiocese are currently thinking about joining a seminary. Some people believe the current crisis has been exaggerated. For years Ireland couldn’t accommodate all the priests it produced so they were shipped over here. In the 1950s, it was not uncommon to have four priests in one parish house. Now we are simply reaching levels found across the rest of Europe.

Even so, eight young men mulling over the prospect of becoming a priest is hardly a stampede. And it’s not difficult to understand what is putting others off. “I think that at no point since the Reformation has it been a harder choice than it is today,” Convery says. “It is utterly counter-cultural to say I am going to embrace a life of chastity in a world where everyone exalts sex, to live a life of obedience in a world where everyone exalts self-determination and freedom, to live a poor life where everyone searches after riches.” Add to that the constant allusions to paedophilia and it’s hardly an attractive proposition.

Pope Francis is trying hard to change the image of the Church. And despite constant references to his “collegiate” approach, he has an iron will when it comes to his own lifestyle choices. The day-to-day decisions he has taken: 
to stay in the Santa Marta hotel, to travel in a Ford Focus, to queue for his breakfast, require notable strength of character.

But he is walking a razor’s edge. The more beloved he becomes of the secular world, the more he is likely to alienate traditionalists. And the more he appears to embrace change, the more change will be demanded of him (though he has already cautioned against expecting any seismic theological shifts). The danger is Pope Francis will fall victim to the Obama effect, where public hopes are raised to unattainable levels, making disappointment inevitable. While it’s too harsh to suggest his appeal is synthetic or shallow, it seems unrealistic to suppose any single man, however com­passionate or humble, can overturn centuries of the Church’s teaching or ­reverse the secularisation of western ­society.

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1