There has been an enormous amount of excitement on the media and twitter about the new pope. Unsurprising when you think that there are some 1.2 billion Catholics in the world (there or there about). There seems to be much that seems that this may be a great appointment by the Cardinals of the Catholic Church.
Firstly, he is from outside Europe. It is very easy for people to forget that the vast majority of Catholics are in South America and Africa. It matters where a Pope is from. It sends a signal to people that they matter. Had an Italian been appointed it would have sent a very clear message that the Curia, the bureaucracy, steady as she goes would have the upper hand. By choosing someone from outside there is a clear mandate that they need to sort out how the Catholic Church works.
Secondly, there is the name he has chosen. Who knows exactly what was in his mind when he chose it but there are two contenders that he is modelling himself on. Firstly, Francis Xavier the co-founder of the Jesuit order of which the new pope is a member. In the late renaissance era the Jesuits were seen very negatively in protestant Europe as it was the order that spearheaded the Counter-Reformation. It has a reputation for learning and evangelism (maybe a hint of some of the focus of the new pontiff?). The second person is, of course, Francis of Assisi who was a major religious figure of the Middle Ages renowned for starting a renewal movement in the Church and focussing on a life of poverty. If this is the case then we would expect a focus on renewal and mission.
Next there is his own piety. I hope that reports of his personal piety (not using a chauffeur and living in a flat rather than living a palace) is real and not derailed by the pressure of being Pope. One hopeful sign was the way that he handled himself on being presented to the crowd. He seemed to have a centre to him and peace. His asking for the crowd to pray for him and his handling of wishing them good night were signs of humility and humanity.
There is a list of demands that varies from commentator to commentator. Most seem to see things through the lens of western media obsessions (probably unsurprising in that I live in the UK) and most seem to focus around sex – abortion, gay issues, married clergy, abuse by clergy etc. However, there are some big issues outside this arena. Persecution in many parts of the world, poverty, looking at how the church operates. These are big issues and themes and any one of them would be enough for most pontiffs but in a 24 hour media the pressure will soon rise to “sort it”; whatever “it” is.
My hope is that he will start by ensuring protection for the most vulnerable. That will mean ensuring that there are strong mechanisms in place to ensure that there are procedures and a culture that ensures the protection of the vulnerable. As a consequence I imagine that he will also look at how the curia is operating and whether it needs an overhaul and a focus on clearing out some of the bureaucracy that stops any real action being taken to investigate abuse and put policies and procedures in place.
My fear is that he ends us being a personally holy man who doesn’t confront the problems around him. It may end up in his being, eventually, made a saint but won’t help those who really need him to chart a new path for the Catholic Church. He needs all our prayers.