Liz O'Donnell: Radical Francis has won sceptics over – and put himself in danger
Published 03/12/2013 | 02:30
The newspaper image of the Pontiff getting into a Ford Focus said it all. I have become a total fan of Pope Francis. From the beginning, I marvelled at the Jesuit's break from traditional rituals and his humble outreach to the dispossessed, be they prisoners or immigrants. For this lapsed Catholic it was a welcome sign of a long overdue change in tone as well as substance at the top of the Catholic Church.
Thousands of Irish Catholics have fallen out with the church over the last 20 years, primarily due to its mishandling of clerical abuse scandals, the political culmination of which was represented by the controversial closure of the Irish embassy in the Vatican. So for Ireland, new management in the Vatican in the form of Pope Francis has a significance beyond religion. It is highly political and diplomatic.
Actions always speak louder than words. But when it comes to doctrinal matters, documents and the written word are more important.
Even the cynic will be impressed by the latest document to emerge from his Holiness. Titled 'Evangelii Gaudium' ('the Joy of the Gospel'), it is the new Pontiff's apostolic exhortation for Christians to return to the original message of compassion and evangelism.
The preamble proffers the faith as a salve to the lonely and disillusioned. He wants the church not be overly preoccupied by the traditional battlegrounds of sex and marriage but to focus on issues of poverty and social justice. He extols the virtue of mercy for the sinner: "The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak."
But, critically, his focus is institutional as well as ideological. He wants to take power and governance away from the scandal-damaged Vatican and back to the local parish. It is as if we are at last hearing a voice that acknowledges how the church as an institution has lost its way; but this time without the usual defensiveness. His language is astonishing in its authenticity.
"I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."
The document is radical in style and substance in line with his actions and utterances to date. He has also brought forward by four months the announcements of new cardinals. There is an expectation that his candidate choice will demonstrate a power shift away from Europe and in favour of the developing world, especially South America and Africa where large Catholic populations have been under-represented in the College of Cardinals.
Since taking office, he has spurned the traditional pomp and lavish papal accommodation in the Vatican, opting to live in a small Vatican hotel. He has mass appeal and huge adoring crowds gather wherever he treads.
One can only imagine the unease in the Vatican's diplomatic service at such a turn of events. The powerful and much discredited Curia is being well and truly sidelined by new management. In all bureaucracies civil servants abhor ministers with strong independent views. I am sure there are panicked diplomats sweating into their starched collars as the boss launches into yet another reform.
In the same week that Irish woman Very Reverend Pat Storey was consecrated Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath and Kildare, I scanned the document for hints in the direction of Catholic women priests. But though there was a recognition of the need for "more space to be given for a more incisive female presence in the church", there was nothing to indicate he is for turning on the status quo. In fairness, such a seismic reform will more likely be incremental.
On the economy and the "modern tyranny" of unfettered capitalism, he decries "the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose".
Given such radical views and desire to be accessible I would have concerns for his personal safety. Such reforms will inevitably upset many conservatives and his celebrity status could make him a target for assassination. Unique people like Pope Francis come along once in a generation, and they can be taken away in a second of madness or evil. What a tragedy if his safety was compromised by any relaxation in his security detail . . .
There is an appetite for renewal among Catholics worldwide.
Many young people are seeking meaning in their busy and distracted lives.
Lapsed Catholics are anxious to fill the hole left by God in their world and are open to return.
'Evangelii Gaudium' invites them back, speaking of the church being "like the father of the prodigal son who always keeps his door open".