Habemus papam (we have a pope). Those two Latin words, previously unknown to a majority of the world’s population, became very familiar during the election of the new pope as media commentators sought to explain the papal selection process. Yes, we have a pope, Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina.
He has already scored many firsts. He is the first pope to take on the name Francis, after St Francis of Assisi, the son of a rich merchant who gave up wealth, pleasure and privilege for a life of extreme poverty. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope. He is the first pope to come from the Southern Hemisphere and the first outside Europe for more than a thousand years.
Is this man, with a record of firsts, the person to breathe new life into an ageing, creaking church? Is he the man to bring reassurance to a church beset with scandals and doubts?
Already, he is charming crowds with his simplicity, warmth and spontaneity. It is good to see a pope who strays from a prepared text and speaks from the heart, so to speak. It is refreshing to see him freely gesture with his hands and connect with the crowds. Pope Francis shows signs of vitality and freedom from a sterile formality that we had come to associate with the papacy.
It will be interesting to see if the new style Pope Francis brings to the Vatican can help him break the mould and come up with other, more significant firsts.
Will he be the first to break the silence about a lot of things the church has kept under wraps for centuries – for instance, its indefensible collusion with tyrants across the world, its unconscionable indifference in the face of injustice and all manner of atrocities, or the proverbial burying the head in the sand to avoid seeing the unsavoury sights?
In the case of Rwanda, it is reasonable to expect that the people’s pope (as he is getting to be known) will acknowledge the church’s complicity in the genocide in the country, apologise and ask for pardon – if not from Rwandans, at least from his master. He has taken up the papacy at an opportune moment to do this.
He should have the courage to defrock and even excommunicate the rapist priests and mass murdering clergy who still ply their trade in various countries.
At the very least, he should shed a tear for the desecration of churches in Rwanda, sometimes at the supervision of priests.
If Pope Francis wants to break from an unpleasant past and set the church on a new moral and spiritual plane, he should be prepared to say a collective mea culpa for all the sins of his predecessors.
Will he do it? May be, but to think that will happen requires one to have a large overdose of optimism. More likely, tradition will be kept and nothing much will change.
Still, Pope Francis has a great opportunity to change – not direction; that would never happen – but emphasis, and more significantly has the chance to rejuvenate an ageing church.
Look everywhere and you see an institution in the later stages of fossilisation. Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus, symbolised that process of ageing. The College of Cardinals itself is a club of the elderly and each Cardinal a study in various stages of that process.
I often watch EWTN, a catholic TV network and am not reassured by what I see. The mass is a colourless routine affair. The congregation at mass is made up of elderly people who hardly fill a third of the small church. The sermons are dull and uninspiring.
The rosary, recited by nuns whose habit makes one think of penguins, drones on monotonously. I believe I have caught the plump and elderly mother superior stumble on the beads. You get the impression that the few younger nuns among them would rather be out skipping, swapping romantic fantasies or doing some other girlish mischief.
The church lacks dynamism and vitality and the TV network rather than dispel this view actually entrenches it.
Of course, there will be defenders of the state of affairs where ritual and substance are synonymous and the key elements, and energy an aberration. They will say the church is timeless and ageless. That may be so, but it is also obviously creaking and seems to move along only by the sheer momentum of tradition and history, not by creative energy.
Benedict XVI’s abdication and retreat from the world, whether pushed by the weight of the sins of his priests or overwhelmed by the shadowy and opaque Vatican bureaucracy, gives the church a chance for renewal.
The new pope should not retreat from the world, but must rather engage it and shape its future. He needs to be more forthright and assertive, and not kowtow to palace courtiers who thrive on scheming and intrigues.
There are some good indications already and perhaps the church has come full circle. The return to simplicity and spontaneity reminds one of the simple and impulsive fisherman who became the rock on which the church is built. .His equally unassuming master, the son of a humble carpenter, gathered for himself a huge following through persuasion and example.
The church may yet be re-energised. Pope Francis I has the chance to make history. He should seize it.