Why there's apprehension and joy at Pope Francis's election
If he can't make the Catholic Church and its practices fit for our times, his papacy will be an irrelevance
THE ALMOST casual greeting of the new Pope to the crowds in Rome – Buona Sera, good evening - seemed to herald something really new stirring in the Vatican. "My fellow cardinal electors tasked with electing a new Bishop of Rome seem to have gone to the end of the world to find him," said Pope Francis. "Well now I am here."
The easy manner, the half smile, are those of a natural communicator. He showed all the skills of his predecessor but one, Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope.
The similarities do not end there. Like Karyl Wojtila, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has broken the mould. He is the first member of the Society of Jesus, the intellectual elite among Roman Catholic religious orders, to be elected pope. He is also the first pontiff to choose the name Francis, after the most radical and socially engaged of great church reformers, St Francis of Assisi.
Like Francis he has chosen to live simply and close to the people of his archdiocese, Buenos Aires. He sold the bishop's mansion and moved into a small apartment and cooked for himself. He gave up his bishop's chauffeured limousine and travelled to work by bus. Like St Francis he has had trouble with the secular authorities, not least with the current Argentine president Cristina Fernandez and her predecessor, her late husband Nestor.
But like John Paul II, he is deeply conservative on doctrine and social mores. He is unlikely to shift the Vatican line on such issues as abortion and gay marriage, though he has approved of contraception "as a means of preventing disease". He condemned the Argentine's proposed legalisation of gay marriage in surprisingly harsh terms: "Let's not be naïve. Its isn't a simple political fight, it's an attempt to destroy God's plan."
Judging by the flood of comments from Catholics across the world, there is an air of apprehension as well as joy among the faithful at the election of their new pope. There is a sense that this is a make-or-break moment for the global Roman Catholic Church. The new pope has to pick up the pieces left by the abdication of his predecessor – the first voluntary resignation since the hermit Celestine V quit in 1294, which made Dante, his contemporary, dump him in the Inferno in The Divine Comedy.
Pope Francis now has to manage the damage done to papal authority, the catalogue of sexual scandal by the priesthood, and the 'dark' dossier of misdemeanor by the Vatican hierarchy and government, the Curia, drawn up by a committee of senior cardinals. Pope Benedict decided to step down before divulging or acting upon the cardinals' findings.
It is far from clear from the record of Jorge Mario Bergoglio whether he will act decisively and swiftly to clear up the mess. In the past he has been accused of not standing up to Argentina's notoriously brutal military dictatorship, responsible for 30,000 deaths and 'disappearances' between 1976 and 1983.
In particular he has been challenged over the withdrawal of the Jesuit Order's protection for two of its young priests who visited the slums during the 'dirty war' of the dictatorship. This led to their secret detention for six years by the authorities. He was condemned in The Silence, a book about the episode by a journalist, Horacio Verbitsky, based on the statements of one of the priests, Orlando Yorio, who has since died.
Bergoglio also supported the populist right-wing Catholic movement, 'Communion and Liberation', now active in 80 countries. Founded in Italy in the 1950s, it soon became a vehicle against the more socialist Catholics embracing Liberation Theology, especially in Latin America. It sustained the right of the notoriously corrupt governing Christian Democrats in Italy, and has come to support the right-wing populism of Silvio Berlusconi. It was opposed by two of the most progressive Italian cardinals, Anastasio Balestrero of Turin and Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, an outstanding Jesuit moderniser.
After last night's Buona Sera to the people of Rome, he now has to say Buongiorno to the world – and tell us how he plans to make his Church and its practices fit for our times. Unless he does this, far from his reign being "a long road to love and evangelisation" as he said from the balcony last night, it could be a very short cut to irrelevance. ·