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Pope Francis: Not so much a reformer as a revolutionary

2013 September 27
by Paul Vallely

Radical change has become in the new norm in Rome under the first six months of the pontificate of Pope Francis. The first pope ever from the Americas has brought with him – “from the ends of the earth”, as he put it – a fundamentally new perspective. Now conservatives in the Vatican are braced for what could be, next week, a bigger change than anything so far.

A new council of eight cardinal advisers – mavericks to a man – will meet for the first time on Tuesday to offer guidance from outside the dysfunctional and self-serving Vatican bureaucracy known as the Roman Curia. The new pope from Argentina has tasked them with the massive job of reforming the Curia.  The new body has been described by the leading ecclesiastical historian, Professor Alberto Melloni, of the University of Modena as the “most important step in the history of the church for the past 10 centuries”.  Even allowing for a little Italian exaggeration, this is clearly a big deal.

Pope Francis caused a stir from the outset by eschewing the monarchical trappings of the papacy and presenting himself as an icon of assertive humility. But there has been much more too him than a pope who rejects the papal palace, eats at the refectory table in his hostel, carries his own bags and makes impromptu calls on his mobile to a variety of ordinary people in response to letters whose envelopes were address only to “Pope Francis, The Vatican, Rome”.

He has also been radical in his pronouncements on church teaching. On the plane back to Rome from World Youth Day in Brazil – where his final Mass had attracted three million worshippers – Francis spoke freely in answer to reporters questions on a wide range of topics. His reversal of Rome’s attitudes to gay people – “who am I to judge?” grabbed the headlines. But in 80 minutes of Q&As the new Pope signalled change in many areas.

That was a message reinforced this month when he gave a 12,000 word interview to a Jesuit publication. It sent shock waves through the Catholic Church. He criticised it for putting dogma before love and doctrine before serving the poor. It had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception and become a church of “small-minded rules”.  Where his predecessor Benedict XVI’s wanted a smaller purer church, Francis wanted an inclusive one which was a “home for all”.

“We have to find a new balance,” Pope Francis concluded, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. ”

Conservative Catholics have struggled with all this, stuttering that the new Pope was changing no doctrine but merely offering a different style.  Many of his comments could have been made by Pope Benedict, they said, it was only Francis’s tone which was different.

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