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Are we in for a genuine Catholic Spring?

Second Reading

It is too early to know what the papacy of Pope Francis will be like but, so far, the optics are encouraging
?It is too early to know what the papacy of Pope Francis will be like but, so far, the optics are encouraging.

Are we in for a genuine Catholic Spring?

Fr Kevin Hegarty

Joan Didion states in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ that life can change in an instant. Pope Francis might agree.
Until Wednesday, March 1, he was relatively unknown outside Argentina. Beyond there he was familiar only to religious affairs specialists or, perhaps an ecclesiastical nerd, preparing for a stint on ‘Mastermind’ on the special topic of the College of Cardinals.
Within seconds of this appearance on the papal balcony on that evening he had joined Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi as the most famous Argentinians on the globe. He might have liked that. He is a supporter of a local soccer team in Buenos Aires.
It is too early to know what his papacy will be like but, so far, the optics are encouraging.
In Buenos Aires he lived simply. He eschewed the political grandeur of the Archbishop’s house for an apartment. He travelled to work on a bus. This vehicle is likely to become as famous as the one which Rosa Parks boarded in Montgomery, Alabama on that fateful evening in 1955.
He seems determined not to allow the fussy protocol restraints of the papacy to change him. So far he has not moved into the papal apartments and seems reluctant to do so. His dress, to the chagrin of the papal flunkeys, is low key. Not for him the elaborate medieval regalia in which Pope Benedict was often enveloped.
He speaks simply. He has a sense of humour and a self-deprecating wit. His choice of the name Francis emphasises his passionate concern for those mired in poverty. He is informed in his personal engagements and already has reached out to prisoners.
Conservative Catholic commentators, queasy about what the populist style might mean for the direction of the new papacy, have been at pains to reiterate that he is one of them. They are right. “The National Catholic Reporter noted that he is “unwaveringly orthodox on matters of sexual morality, staunchly opposing abortion, same sex marriage and contraception”.
Otherwise Pope John Paul II would not have promoted him and honoured him with the red hat. He also opposed liberation theology in South America.
What liberal Catholics hope for however is that he might, unlike his two immediate predecessors, be open to dialogue about the church’s direction.
Could he be like Pope John XXIII, also elderly when elected? Expected only to be a stop-gap leader, he astonished the Catholic world and infuriated the Curia by summoning the Second Vatican Council to reconsider Catholic doctrine and practices. He dared to introduce Catholicism to modernity.
A writer in The New Yorker magazine cites a different precedent. Will he be a sort of Catholic version of Earl Warren whom Dwight D Eisenhower picked as Supreme Court Justice in 1953. Eisenhower believed that he was appointing a moderate conservative, but under Warren’s leadership the court issued a series of landmark decisions, expanding civil rights in areas such as education, voting and criminal justice.
Who knows? Are we in for a bright new start or is this a false dawn? There have been false dawns before. Take for example, 1846, when Pius IX was chosen as Pope. He was popular, convivial and poor. He had to borrow money to go to the conclave. He was outgoing, visiting hospitals and prisons and offering Mass in obscure Roman Churches.
He changed utterly when during the Italian Risorgimento the papal states were reduced to the area that is now the Vatican. It left him with a horror of the modern world, most trenchantly expressed in his encyclical the “Syllabus of Errors” where he condemned among other things, socialism, Gallicanism, and nationalism. Its last proposition attacked the notion that “the Roman Pontiff can and shoud reconcile himself with progress, liberalism and recent civilisation. Cardinal Newman, a forward-thinking theologian who wanted to engage with the impulses of the modern world, was dismayed. He wrote ”we are shrinking into ourselves, narrowing the lines of communication, trembling at freedom of thought, and using the language of dismay and despair at the prospect before us”.
Not unlike what happened during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI!
As a Catholic liberal I travel with renewed hope that we are witnessing a genuine Catholic Spring. A favourable straw in the wind is that some church leaders have begun to mirror the Association of Catholic Priests which campaigns for reform. In the way that John Hume taught Sinn Féin the language of the peace process, perhaps the ACP can teach bishops the language of change in church structures?
Already Archbishop Martin, who seems especially invigorated by the election of Pope Francis, has talked of the need for restructuring. He even admitted that he encountered some ‘nasty’ people in the Vatican Curia. There is a vacancy in The ACP leadership team. Perhaps Diarmuid Martin might fill it. I jest, but only a little.