Francis ‘The Informal’ – One Year On

Thursday 13 March 2014 15.46

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By Joe Little, Religious and Social Affairs Correspondent

This day last year, the Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the first non-European Pontiff in 1,300 years.

Since then the 77-year-old has frequently broken with precedent, most notably by choosing to live in a Vatican guest-house instead of the Apostolic Palace overlooking Saint Peter’s Square.

Gestures like paying his own hotel bill and using a saloon car have set the tone of his Pontificate, but what else is new about Pope Francis’s first 12 months?

From the word go, he was “Francis The Informal”.

When he emerged onto the balcony of St Peter’s basilica to be introduced to the world following his election there was no traditional pedestal to elevate him above his aides; no fur-trimmed cape to distinguish him; and he asked the crowd to bless him before blessing them.

The tens of thousands of pilgrims looking up from a rain-sodden Saint Peter’s Square cheered wildly in response to his opening remark, “Buonasera”, the Italian for good evening.

Every onlooker I met afterwards was excited that the starched and formal facade so beloved of many of Francis’ predecessors had been discarded.

Then there was the name, Francis. By becoming the first Pope to choose the name of the patron of Assisi, he was aligning himself with the poor and with change.

Because the 13th Century Saint Francis, having turned his back on his affluent lifestyle, had lived a simple and sustainable existence.

He was reputed to have heard God tell him: “Go and repair my Church”, a Church riddled with corruption, intrigue and nepotism. He set about the task with zeal and is still remembered as one who led by example and who left reformed institutional structures in his wake.

The 114 Cardinals who swiftly chose ‘Pope Bergoglio’ on 13 March 2013 mandated him to reform the Vatican and to urgently clean up its tarnished bank.

Quickly he chose seven diocesan Cardinals – and only one from the Vatican bureaucracy – as advisors. After three formal meetings – and much online discussion in the periods in between – Francis appointed one of them, Sydney’s George Pell, to lead a new Finance Ministry.

The Australian conservative has long complained about shortcomings in the bureaucracy, known by insiders by its Latin title ‘the Roman Curia’.

Paul Vallely, author of the best-selling biography, ‘Pope Francis: Untying The Knots’, recalls that the new pope sacked four of the cardinals on the Vatican Bank’s governing body who had been appointed less than a year earlier by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVl.

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Determined to remain a pastor

Meanwhile, on his first Holy Thursday as Rome’s bishop he departed from protocol by including females and Muslims in the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet which recalls Christ’s act of service to his apostles at the Last Supper hours before His crucifixion.

Was there here a suggestion by the Pontiff that women were present when Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders? Theologians will only know for sure if Francis lifts Pope John Paul ll’s ban on debating the subject of women’s ordination.

Another innovation on that Holy Thursday was that the ceremony took place in a youth detention centre. After washing the feet, he told the detainees not to lose hope that they could change their lives so as to serve others.

It’s a lesson he learned from his own self-confessed abuse of power while he was an abnormally young Provincial of Argentina’s Jesuits; a lesson which taught him to be more open to change and more participative in his approach to leading the diocese of Buenos Aires in his 60s and 70s.

The man who had spent much of his time visiting slum-dwellers while Archbishop was well used to washing prisoners’ and women’s and non-Christians’ feet. Since his election to the See of Saint Peter, he has shown a determination to remain a pastor.  Repeatedly in both actions and words he has emphasised that he is primarily the Bishop of Rome.

Recently, addressing Rome’s priests he revealed that he often cries with parishioners as they unburden themselves of their woes. Then he asked the clerics if they get close enough to their people to cry too.

Many believe that in prioritising pastoral work he is signalling that he will collaborate as an equal with other church prelates in reaching key decisions. For example, Mr Vallely points out that he does not chair the Council of Eight Cardinals, preferring instead to listen and join in when he has something substantial to contribute.

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Rome, Rio and those interviews

In July, he attracted millions of mass-goers and well-wishers on his first foreign trip, appropriately to Brazil, the largest country in his native Latin America.

Its capital, Rio de Janiero had been chosen two years earlier as the venue for the Catholic carnival, World Youth Day, prompting many Brazilians to wonder if his election as the first Latin American Pope had not been intended by a higher power.

On his return flight from Rio to Rome, he spoke at length on the record with the Vatican press corps.

Asked about rumours of a corrupt “pink” circle in the Curia, he responded : “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?”. He emphasised that the problem was one of conspiracy and not of sexual orientation.

His words were welcomed by prominent gays and lesbians who applauded his use of the word “gay” in preference to “homosexual”, used widely in Church discourse but which, in the view of many,  pathologises the issue of sexual orientation.

In September Francis told the Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica that the Church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” he continued. “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that,” he revealed.

Irish theologian Fáinche Ryan welcomes Francis’ placing of mercy above law in his order of priorities.

“He does not put law first, he puts people first, he wants to embrace people,” she says. “He has also admonished the Church for being too critical of women who have children outside marriage, of not enabling them sufficiently,” says Dr Ryan who teaches at Trinity College Dublin’s Loyola Institute.

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Bringing it all back home

Meanwhile, one of the Pope’s fellow Jesuit priests ministering in one Ireland’s poorest and most neglected parishes is heartened by Francis’empathy with the poor.

Fr Tony O’Riordan, the parish priest of Moyross in Limerick City says the Pontiff’s “words and actions demonstrate that the poor and the reality of their lives are close to his heart and should be close to the heart of the Church. His low key approach to his position and his fondness for people is hard not to be touched by”.

However, writing in a special online edition of Irish Jesuit News, he warns that there are implications in Francis’ approach which the Irish Church has not grasped.

“The reality of the lives of people who live on the margins are far from the real concern of the institutional church” which, although large and influential, “fails to allow the real life concerns of the poor to pulsate through its veins”.

Fr O’Riordan says such concerns are clogged by middle class preoccupations about the bourgeoisie becoming “the new poor”. He says this perspective “finds several mental and emotional mechanisms to prevent serious political and social action to eliminate the evils done by poverty”.

He says if such action was taken in the case of Moyross, it would bring down the concrete wall that cuts off many of its residents from neighbouring Catholic communities

The parish priest says Pope Francis may have created the possibility of a bounce in the Church’s prospects, “but it remains to be seen if the Irish Church has the passion to catch this bouncing ball.”

<> on March 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.

Children and Families

To confront the most damaging scandal to erode the Church in modern times, Francis is setting up a Commission on Child Abuse. Last month the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child criticised Church cover-ups of clerical child sexual abuse. But in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Serra, Francis hit back saying no institution had done more to root out paedophilia.

Mr Vallely says it’s an area where the new Pope will have to do something. “Otherwise the honeymoon will be over because that’s the area where the secular world is most disgusted with the Catholic Church.”

Next October, Francis and representatives of his fellow bishops from around the world will consider feedback from an unprecedented Vatican questionnaire on the Church’s teaching on the family.

The circulation of the survey is another example of a more participative papacy.

Based on reports from bishops in Dublin, Tuam, Germany and Switzerland, the responses from parishioners indicate strong dissent from Church teaching on sexuality.

There’s speculation that Francis could move after the October synod to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.  But neither Mr Vallely nor Dr Ryan predict that he will consider deeper reform in the short term.

Thinking globally, acting locally

He is planning visits before the year’s end to the Holy Land and South Korea. Significantly, these are outside of Europe which his predecessor, Pope Benedict prioritised as his mission-field.

But Francis is still self-consciously the Bishop of Rome and he wants to deepen his flock’s relationship with what he often calls “the periphery”. His most dramatic expression of his teaching-by-example was when he made his first trip outside Rome in July.

His destination was an outpost of Italy where immigrants from the Third World huddle in official reception camps.

On hearing that several boat-people had drowned when their craft sank off the Italian-ruled island of Lampedusa, he decided to visit the scene giving only a few weeks’ notice. When asked about the tragedy, he told a crowd, “the word disgrace comes to me. It is a disgrace!”

Each year, the North African coastal waters surrounding the island are navigated by thousands of undocumented migrants often in unseaworthy craft owned by people- traffickers who have taken the life savings of desperate Syrians, Eritreans and Somalis, to name just some of the nationalities concerned, in return for the risky passage.

Many passengers have drowned in their bid to make a better life for themselves and their children in the wealthier northern hemisphere.

During his hastily-organised visit, Pope Francis tossed a wreath into the waters in their memory and celebrated mass on an upturned rowing boat in the local port. He praised the islanders for embracing the migrants and called for a just sharing of the burden of supporting them.

He argues for fair trade as well as aid. Last May, on the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker, shortly after more than 1,100 people died when their garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, Francis protested: “Living on €38 a month – that was the pay of these people who died. That is called slave labour.”

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has become the first citizen of the developing world to take the helm in a global organisation with over one billion members.

To date, perhaps his greatest contribution has been to tell some home truths about global exploitation to the nations who benefit from it.

But he’s not blind to the peripheries within the developed nations either.

In Sardinia in September, addressing an audience which included many unemployed people and their families, he delivered one of his sharpest attacks on the global economic system.

“I find suffering here,” he proclaimed leaving aside his prepared script. “But where there is no work there is no dignity. The world has become an idolator of this god called money. Money is in command! Money lays down the law! It orders all these things that are useful to it, this idol. Grandparents are thrown away and young people are thrown away. And we must say ‘no’ to this culture of waste.”

“Lord Jesus”, he prayed, “You were never out of work, give us work and teach us to fight for work”.   Embracing an unemployed man, he counselled: “Don’t do not let yourself be robbed of hope! Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope!”.

There is no reason to believe he has changed his views of injustice in Central and Latin America and the Caribbean enunciated in 2007 when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and president of the whole region’s conference of bishops: “We live in the most unequal part of the world which has grown the most yet reduced misery by the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for many of our brothers (and sisters).”

Looked at from this perspective, the Apostolic Palace, the fur and the pedestals seem like the obscene trappings of a myopic elite which has, unsurprisingly, steered the barque of Saint Peter into a storm of many scandals.

The scenario would seem familiar to St Francis.

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