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TV review: Panorama on whether the new Pope can start a Catholic revolution

The Pope is cool these days: he has 17 million followers on Twitter; he won't use the fancy Papal limousine; he loves a game of football and used to hang around in tango bars when he was young. He even has an app.

What's known as 'the Francis effect' sees him greeted like a pop star wherever he goes, with crowds of weeping nuns and young girls holding up hand-written signs with pink hearts which should surely say 'I LUV Justin Bieber' but, instead, have messages of affection for their Pope.

(This is all a far cry from creased old Ratzinger, his grim predecessor, who may well have had a name but is destined to be known as 'the one who was in the Hitler Youth').

Last night's Panorama special - The Pope's Revolution - investigated whether Pope Francis is indeed bringing change to the Catholic Church or whether he is simply a celebrity Pope, a breath of fresh air but nothing substantial.

The first half of the episode was devoted to his early days in Buenos Aires and we learned he worked in the slums, rode the subway, and even bought his own newspapers each morning. He was always lacking in the grandeur his fellow bishops aspired to but the knowledge that he nipped to the shops loses its charm when we are told this against disturbing footage of the slums. It ceases to be a bit of humorous praise and becomes a symbol of how gladly removed from reality the Church is.

The programme did have admiration for Pope Francis - rightly so - and any attacks were reserved for the Church rather than the man. He seems genuinely likeable and I had to smile when we hear a funny voicemail he leaves for a group of nuns, wondering why they're not bothering to answer when they've got the Pope on the line!

This jauntiness and humour is light years away from the Catholic Church I was raised in where you were taught to fear your priest, not have a laugh with him.

Catholic children were raised to be intimidated by the men in black. You could say they wanted the masses to be cowed by the masses. If you are quietly respectful and awed, you will not stand up and say 'but this is all daft!'

If you are made, from the tiny age of seven, to literally kneel at the feet of these men and tell them how you have sinned, then it becomes difficult to challenge them later. Perhaps this is why people opt to simply leave the Church rather than work as lay persons to reform it.

How easy can it be to speak as equals with a man who has seen you on the floor, your nervous fingers knotted in plastic rosary beads, tearful and ashamed as you tell his carpet that you swore at your mum and shoved your sister.

The very nature of the Act of Confession is to reinforce the distance between the grubby sinner and the wholesome priest. Only he has the power to cleanse you. It can't be done alone; you can't feel regret and sorrow and obtain some kind of peace through prayer. Only the Church can issue that. Power is taken from the individual and given to the man in a black, buttoned-up dress.

The interior of Catholic churches reinforces this sense of distance and separation. Everything is ornate and fancy. As an eight-year old, I took my Protestant friend, Vivien, along to Mass one day and she gasped 'look at all the GOLD!' Gold indeed, but outside is the grubby Fernhill housing estate with its neds and its broken glass.

Those who say the Vatican should sell off its paintings and its chandeliers so they can feed the poor are wasting their time. This will never happen because of greed - naturally - but also because they need their marble and their gold to promote the feeling of separation.

Gold fosters power. And what do they need power for? To enable them to amass more wealth, with which they can acquire more power. A vicious circle, enabled by the timid congregations who've been kneeling down to priests since the age of seven. The Church feeds off gilt and guilt and grows fatter each day.

Before the Reformation, masses were all in Latin and the illiterate and the uneducated mumbled along, chanting and memorising, without understanding what they were actually saying. They may as well have been reciting a spell.

That barrier has been dismantled and most of the Mass these days is delivered in English, so the unwashed hordes can now understand and hopefully question the content, so the Church need to amass wealth and grandeur more than ever to keep the flock in their place.

Priests were also able to enter your home. We'd be lying on the bedroom carpet watching Dumbo when Mum would burst into the room, shaking us to move and help her tidy up. She had spotted Father O'Mahoney swishing down the street.

There was true shame in the priest coming in, having to step over wobbly piles of laundry, see no-one had bothered to open the curtains that day, see dirty cutlery in the sink, and see we'd had Chick Sticks for dinner.

There was no question of refusing to let him in; your door had to be opened and the priest could walk in to 'see how you are', but it was really just another exercise of power. This man can enter your house as he wishes, but you can only enter his at the appointed hour on Sunday.

So, against centuries of the accrual of power and the exercise of guilt, what hope does a sprightly and pleasant new Pope have?

None. He will serve out his time then be succeeded by a new man in a new cape and the whole hideous enterprise will continue. Any change will have to come from below, from the congregations, but we see how child abuse victims are, even now, struggling to be heard by the Church.

It'll take more than a twinkly-eyed Pope to sort that out. I have no hope for the Catholic Church and am glad I've scrubbed off their gilt.

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