The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope signals a new era for the Roman Catholic Church at a time when criticism reaches into the heart of the Vatican.
The cardinals meeting in secret conclave had to weigh many priorities. In electing the 76-year-old Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a man known for his simple lifestyle, the first Pope to take the name of Francis, they have signalled a commitment to change. In the 21st century, does the church need an evangelist, a sophisticated communicator, an intellectual theologian or a hard-headed manager as spiritual leader to reach the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide? Pope Francis has all these qualities.
The church must restore moral authority at a time when it has been rocked by the scandals of sexual abuse by clergy and when many throughout the developed world are critical of the requirement for priestly celibacy and the refusal to admit women as priests. The disturbing scale of abuse as more adult survivors reveal childhood trauma has overshadowed much of Benedict XVI's papacy and must now be dealt with in a way which acknowledges not only the original harm but the cover-up if trust is to be rebuilt.
The departure of Benedict XVI, who deemed the church's strict opposition to abortion and euthanasia and the practice of homosexuality, brings an opportunity for opening the debate on these issues and clerical celibacy. Pope Francis is unlikely to favour a more liberal approach to Catholic teaching, something that seems necessary in the developed world if the pews are to be filled and the shortage of candidates for the priesthood halted. The choice of a Latin American is recognition not only that 42% of Catholics live in that continent but also that it will be important to move beyond Europe in determining the church's future. The growth of the church in Latin America and Africa is under threat by the rise of evangelical churches. Argentina, however, is an increasingly secular country where millions are leaving the church, so the problems of relevance are well-known. Although conservative on ethical issues, Pope Francis is known for a strong commitment to social justice and a practical approach to poverty and these are issues on which Catholics across the world can unite.
Because Benedict XVI's resignation followed the internal scandal of the leaking of papal documents, it opened a window on the internal politics of the Vatican, including allegations of corruption. As a Vatican outsider, Pope Francis may be able to be the new broom clearly required to sweep out the stables but much will depend on whom he appoints to senior positions.
In his first address, in which he spoke to his people as Bishop of Rome rather than as Pope, he told of brotherhood, love and trust. It was a pastoral message from the first Jesuit Pope. Choosing a Pope from the developing world offers a new opportunity for the Catholic Church to influence events across the world.
In choosing the name Francis, Mario Bergoglio has already indicated a continuing simplicity.
His papacy may be simple in style but Pope Francis will be judged by how far he manages to reform the Vatican.
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