Election of Pope Francis fuels hopes for Catholic reform (+video)

The election of Francis is being interpreted as a victory for reform-minded cardinals, and may herald sweeping changes for the scandal-beset Catholic Church.

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    Pope Francis puts flowers on the altar inside St. Mary Major Basilica, in Rome, Thursday. The pope opened his first morning as pontiff by praying Thursday at Rome's main basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
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Less than 24 hours after his highly unexpected election as pope, there are high hopes that Pope Francis will bring radical changes to the Roman Catholic Church, which has had its standing battered by scandal and controversy in recent years.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, the humble 76-year-old son of a railway worker, was up bright and early on his first day as pontiff, visiting a church in Rome for private prayers.

The changes he is expected to bring to the Catholic Church are not likely to affect doctrine. Pope Francis is a doctrinal conservative like his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Where he may make his mark is in his personal commitment to issues of inequality, including poverty and globalization, as well as in tapping his outsider status at the Vatican to promote reform.

His modest manner – as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he traveled by bus and eschewed the episcopal palace in favor of a small apartment – also raises the prospect of a radical culture clash with the pomp and circumstance of the Vatican, which is matched only by the British royal family for its love of costume, ceremony, and tradition.

There is an expectation that the first non-European pope for nearly 1,300 years and the first pontiff from the Americas could clear up the intrigue-ridden Curia, the powerful governing body of the Holy See.

"Revolution at St. Peter's" said a headline in La Repubblica, with the Italian daily greeting Mr. Bergoglio’s election as the expression of a "geographic and cultural upheaval" for the Vatican.

A pope for reform?

Bergoglio's election is being interpreted as a victory for reform-minded cardinals – prominent among them Americans such as Timothy Dolan of New York and Sean O’Malley of Boston – who were dismayed by the allegations of corruption and feuding in the Curia that emerged from the Vatileaks scandal last year, when Pope Benedict’s butler was caught stealing and leaking confidential documents.

It was a defeat for Odilo Scherer, the Archbishop of São Paolo in Brazil, who was the favored candidate of a bloc of cardinals, many of them Italian and working inside the Curia, who were highly resistant to reform, Vatican-watchers said.

The fact that Pope Francis is a Jesuit also may herald sweeping changes to the Holy See. The Jesuits have a reputation for rigorous and independent thought and for taking seriously their vows of poverty.

His decision to adopt the name Francis, recalling the asceticism of St. Francis of Assisi, was interpreted as hugely significant and another clue as to the direction in which he may try to steer the church.

Chris Bain, the chief executive of Cafod, a Catholic aid agency, was in St. Peter’s Square when white smoke puffed from the chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel and, an hour later, when the new pope made his first public appearance by stepping out onto the balcony of the imposing basilica.

“The choice of the name Francis implies simplicity. He could of course be named after two great Francises: St. Francis of Assisi was about protecting the natural world, he was at one with nature. And St. Francis Xavier who was a great missionary. Both could be models for a new papacy, that is very telling,” he says.

He comes from a working-class background – before immigrating to Italy, his father was a railway worker from Portacomaro, near the town of Asti in the northwestern region of Piedmont.

While Pope Benedict was renowned for his love of soft red leather loafers, which were handmade for him by cobblers in Rome, and ermine-lined vestments, Pope Francis is likely to bring a very different approach to the trappings of office.

“He takes his vows of poverty very seriously. He refused to live in the bishop’s palace in Buenos Aires and instead moved into a small apartment where he cooks his own meals. He got rid of the chauffeur-driven limousine and took the bus to work,” says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.

When he was made a cardinal by John Paul II in 2001, his congregation collected money so they could accompany him on his trip to Rome. But he asked them all to stay at home in Argentina, to give the collection to the poor, and to let him travel to the Vatican on his own, noted Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s leading newspapers, this morning.

“It will be a challenge to live this sort of simple lifestyle in the Apostolic Palace," says Father Reese. "I doubt this is the sort of pope who likes silk and furs. This may be very threatening to the papal court, especially those who like to dress up."

An enormous challenge

His reform-minded backers will expect him to do what his predecessor, Benedict, failed to do – tackle the dysfunction in the Curia, an issue that loomed large in the conclave, the secretive process by which Francis was elected by his 114 fellow cardinals in the Sistine Chapel.

He also faces the enormous challenge of rebuilding the church’s credibility on the issue of pedophile priests. Sex-abuse scandals have rocked the church worldwide in the last decade, beginning in the United States in 2002.

“The crisis was caused by secrecy, by cardinals promising not to reveal anything that would dishonor the church,” says Anne Barrett Doyle, the codirector of Bishop Accountability, a US-based watchdog that has tracked the scandal of predatory priests. “The most powerful thing a new pope could do would be to fire bishops who enabled child sex abuse to be committed by priests. If he chose 15 to 20 bishops, that would strike terror into many church officials.”

On doctrinal matters, however, conservatives have nothing to fear from the Jesuit pope. “He’s in total continuity with Benedict and John Paul II on theology and church teaching. We are not going to see women being ordained or approval for gay marriage,” says Reese.

“He’s very progressive on social justice issues and rights for the poor. He fought the Argentinian government on cutting benefits for poor people. He’s very concerned about the impact of globalization on workers in the developing world. This is not a candidate from Wall Street.”

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said in a statement: “We welcome Pope Francis and look forward to hearing about his priorities in the coming days. We do not expect very many changes, but sincerely hope that the culture will change to better reflect the needs of the church and of Catholics.

“We recall with fondness Pope John XXIII, who confronted the troubles of his day by convening the Second Vatican Council ‘to open the windows of the church to let in some fresh air.’ Pope Francis needs to go even farther and throw open the Vatican’s doors to shed some light on a bureaucracy that has allowed the management of the Vatican Bank and the sexual abuse crisis to get completely out of hand.”

A pope who tangos?

The debate on what sort of pope Pope Francis will be, and what he has in mind for the church, is only just beginning. Meanwhile, intriguing tidbits are emerging about the man himself. It turns out that he is a fan of tango, for instance.

"I love tango and I used to dance when I was young," he told the authors of an authorized biography, "The Jesuit," published in Spanish in 2010.

Aside from speaking French, Italian, English, German, and his native Spanish, he knows a smattering of Piedmontese dialect from his family’s ancestral land, we are told.

His favorite painting is "The White Crucifixion," painted by Marc Chagall in 1938, which shows Jesus being crucified on the cross, wearing a prayer shawl as a symbol that he is Jewish.

He even had a girlfriend in his youth. “She was part of a group of friends with whom I used to go dancing,” he told the authors of the biography. “But then I discovered my religious vocation.”

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