Christopher Lee

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Habemus Papam! But Does Francis 1 Have A Church?

13 March 2013,

Habemus Papam. We have a Pope. Today, Francis I took in both hands the tainted chalice of  Supreme Pontiff of more than one billion Catholics – one seventh of the world’s population.

With Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the senior cardinal deacon as his comforter in his shadow, Bergoglio emerged on the central balcony of St Peter’s with raised arms no longer in scarlet, blue and black of his times just past but now clothed in the white samite mystic papal habit. Below him, the familiar scene of St Peter’s Square now saturated in the tears and hopes of  the thousands of his gathered pilgrims and acolytes and the hundreds of millions more across six continents.

For the new Vicar of Christ here on earth now has a task far removed from the robes and dignity of the Sistine Chapel, its frescoes and fanfares. In straight business terms, the pope’s task is simple: fix the Church of Rome.

He begins this very day with the most important role of any pope; the balcony scene had it.  The pope must look good.  He has to look credible.  He has to look like The Pope, the Holy Father, The Supreme Pontiff.

Hundreds of millions of Catholics untouched by the politics and social tragedies of the church see his elevation from the skull-capped sinister imagery of Vatican power to pure white figure as the hope and inspiration they have all but abandoned since the passing of  the saintly Pope John Paul II, eight years ago.

The would-be reformers in the church talk of the failure of Rome to implement the finding of the Second Vatican Council back in the 1960s. They felt betrayed by Rome.  They are right to feel so. But the people there today know little of Vatican 2. It was a complex and vital opportunity for the Church of Rome more than half a century ago –  thus its meaning is rarely in living memory.

The new pope has a hard task and must travel, travel, travel. He must emerge from the Vatican to kiss the soil of every province of his global see. The people must see him, hear him celebrate Mass. Sense his humanity.  For the first purpose of this pope is to restore faith not in the God in which he believes, but faith in the Vatican and in the bishops. Faith in the very Church itself. The people probably want a new John Paul II.  They have not got one.  Even more reason to hit the papal road.

But that does not empty his toxic in tray, nor the single almost explosive document locked away in the deepest vault of the Curia. 

This file contains the extent of abuses of children and others by the clergy.  It has been kept even from the cardinals – maybe because some of their names are in it. 

Back in the 1950s a report to the then pope, Paul VI, observed that clergy who have molested children are not likely to change and therefore should be removed from their duties “and not returned to ministry.” 

It didn’t happen, which is why the Church is in such a terrible mess and dilemma.

The pope now has to make a clear declaration: any priest who has committed such crimes or, who has covered up such crimes, must not simply stand aside.  They must be publicly removed and as the 1950s report’s author Fa. Gerald Fitzgerald said “not returned to ministry.”

In not very Vatican phraseology this would be handing over every detail to police, seeing the prosecution through, standing by the verdict and although once a priest always a priest is the common rule, kicked out of the Church. 

During the cardinals deliberations to elect a new pope, any official (down to car drivers) who leaked information was threatened with excommunication.  The pope would electrify the Vatican and its devoted worshippers by doing the same. Charity? Forgiveness?  

The pope must be seen seen to take command and to be as uncompromising as the church is over such issues as celibacy, homosexuality and divorcees.  Unlikely to happen? Maybe. But nothing much less will do.

He then has to reform the curia, the governing body of the Vatican.  It must not be disbanded. After all, the Vatican is a state and has to have government. But it is that very government that prevents the reforms and actions that will mark the new papacy.

On the other issues such as homosexuality, divorce and celibacy and even marriage for priests, there are few reasons to believe that there will be much change.

For the people, the important role is to see the man himself.  He must gird himself for the followers of Roman Catholicism and others. For example, he must get to Brazil and save his church from the attractions of clappy evangelism.  He must get to Ireland, once the most Roman Catholic province of all, where the people have been lured not by tambourines but the attractions of a new post-Tiger economy, social media, the cult of cynicism and indifference and the new betrayal.

Pope Francis’s first task is simply being there among his people and allowing Catholics to metaphorically touch his hem.  After all, it has been done before, albeit 2000 years ago, but it worked.

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