Michael Kelly: Change, yes – but it won't please everyone
Published 18/03/2013 | 17:00
US President Barack Obama predicted in 2008 that his time in office would herald an era when the rising seas caused by climate change would begin to fall. It hasn't happened. Wisely, Pope Francis has made no such lofty predictions about his pontificate. Nonetheless, one can't help having the feeling that people are projecting unrealistic expectations on to the Argentine Pope.
Francis must be delighted with the wave of warmth and goodwill that has greeted his election. His predecessor, Benedict XVI was destined to be burdened with negative baggage from his role as John Paul II's doctrinal watchdog. Carlsberg doesn't do Popes, but if it did, a smiling man from Buenos Aires who lived in a modest apartment and caught the bus to his office in the morning ticks a lot of boxes.
The election of a Latin American Pope is somewhat of a quiet revolution in itself. He's the first non-European in over 1,200 years. People are looking to 76-year-old Francis for reform. In a sense, the Catholic Church is always reforming. The problem with the idea of reform, however, is that many Catholics tend to want to reshape the church in their own image and likeness, and not everyone can win. As Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has shrewdly observed, when people talk about a 'listening church', they often mean that the church should listen to them. So, what sort of reform can we expect from Pope Francis? One thing is clear, it will be a reform that is Catholic. Some newspaper columnists have referred to his "hard line" on abortion.
Does it come as a surprise that the man chosen to lead the church is staunch in his defence of the right to life of unborn children? Newsflash: the Pope is a Catholic. He also stands firmly against gay marriage and has spoken in defence of the church's teaching on contraception.
This papacy will undoubtedly herald a very different era. However, anyone expecting the church to take on some of the modern views on human sexuality adopted by many Protestant denominations will be disappointed.
But change there will be. He has already set a different tone: declining the papal Mercedes in favour of a seat on the bus with the cardinals also laid down a marker that Francis intends to make humility and simplicity hallmarks of his pontificate.
One of the first insights a theology student gains is the Catholic belief that the church exists, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the world.
Church history provides ample evidence of the fact that, almost paradoxically, Catholicism was at its weakest when lust for secular power overcame the church's spiritual mission.
Pope Francis will provide a powerful reminder that the church exists for the most vulnerable and, in fact, must have a preferential option for the poor.
He is acutely aware that the church's charitable work in the developing world has been responsible for saving the lives of millions of people and assisting countless others to lift themselves out of poverty.
But, while for European popes, this was a distant (even sentimental) realisation, Francis has lived with the marginalised and seen the disastrous effects of unregulated market capitalism as the developing world is stripped of precious resources.
Catholic teaching holds the papacy to be a trifold role of priest, prophet and king. Francis has already demonstrated that kingship is far from his mind.
Leading the 150,000 people in St Peter's Square in prayer on the night of his election has shown that priesthood will be key to his ministry.
However, it is to the prophetic role that Catholics will look to in a troubled world. In an age where big political, financial and ecclesiastical institutions have failed the people they were supposed to serve, a prophetic Pope who will prick the conscience of the world – and the church – is very appealing.
Francis inherits a fragmented (and fragmenting) church.
The divisions evident in Irish Catholicism are a microcosm of factionalism in the global church.
His role as Pontifex Maximus (supreme bridge-builder) will be to manage those tensions and lead a church in which all Catholics can feel themselves valued.
Inevitably, however, there will be occasions when he has to assert what the church does and doesn't stand for – and that won't please everyone.
Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper and on Twitter @MichaelKellyIC