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ROME, Mar 15 2013 (IPS) - No one would expect a Pope elected by an extremely conservative conclave to implement revolutionary reforms within the Catholic Church. Still, many see in the newly elected Pope Francis some signs of change.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio (76), cardinal and archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected Wednesday by an assembly of Roman Catholic cardinals, and became the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who abdicated unexpectedly in February.
This is the first time in the history of the papacy that a non-European from the Jesuit order has been elected as pontiff.
The reaction among hundreds of people gathered Wednesday night in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City awaiting the announcement was positive. Some feel this is because the new Pope chose the name Francis, a symbol of poverty and interreligious dialogue, and because of the non-conventional attitude he struck with his first few words.
“Signs are important,” Tonio dell’Olio, an Italian priest and head of the international section of Libera, a leading anti-corruption association, told IPS. “The choice of the name (and) his very simple and humble way of addressing the people is already a promise of change.”
“Perhaps it is the kind of change that does not reflect our common parametres and expectations, and won’t necessarily (fit into) the category ‘progress’, which we normally use for our evaluation. But what is certain is that we are facing a change that will need to be fully understood” in time.
Certainly, Cardinal Bergoglio is a theological conservative with a clear stand on “non negotiable values” like abortion, gay marriage and the adoption of children by gay couples, some of the main causes for clashes with Argentina’s left-leaning government.
Bergoglio also has a history of ambiguous relationships with Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship – during which the country was torn apart by the conflict known as the Dirty War — which were made public through extensive reports that have appeared over the last few years.
Yet Christians have seen in his symbolic, unconventional actions some signs of hope for a humbler Church, closer to the people.
To the eyes of more progressive churches, the challenge of responding to civil rights issues is something the new Pope cannot delay further, nor the necessary, renewed, interreligious dialogue.
“We want to congratulate him and express best wishes to him (in the hopes) that he can be a leader of the Catholic Church who can build a real, strong and sincere ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, (together) with modern Western culture,” Pastor Eugenio Bernardini, moderator of the Waldensian Church, told IPS.
The 58-year-old father of three recently succeeded former moderator Maria Bonafede, the first woman to hold such position.
In cultural, political and social arenas, Bernardini said, leaders of the Catholic Church tend to deliver “monologues” rather than “engage in frank dialogues”.
This is also true for the ecumenical relation with different Christian confessions, which has been on hold since the time of John Paul II, he said. “Yes, we do meet regularly and have fraternal relationships but no concrete steps have been taken on ecumenism.”
The same is true from the point of view of rights. Much of the international community now recognises values such as personal responsibility, democracy, and transparency, which the Catholic Church fails to recognise, Bernardini said. “But the Catholics are now asking the Church to move on these lines.”
While no particular progressive steps are expected from Bergoglio from a doctrinal point of view, his devotion to Francis, the saint of the poor, and his personal lifestyle, which has been described as “simple and close to the poor”, might lead to a different style of handling the controversial relationship between power and money within the Church.
In a phone interview with IPS, Bernd Nilles, secretary-general of CIDSE, a Brussels-based international alliance of Catholic development agencies, said he expects the new Pope to pay particular attention to the poor.
“We do hope that Pope Francis, in his reflections and guidance, will go beyond the encyclical from former Pope Benedict XVII, where he already spoke of human dignity, charity and global injustice,” Nilles told IPS.
“Maybe this new Pope who comes from the global South, has worked with the poor and understands the daily struggles of poor people and communities, can give new perspective on what exactly human dignity means and how we can overcome the suffering of so many people.”
According to Nilles, Bergoglio is also well placed to understand “the potential and the creativity of the contribution that poor communities can make to a world that is in crisis.
“Let’s take the issue of sustainability and respect for nature: the modern world we have created is reaching planetary boundaries with our (current rate of) resource consumption. Pope Francis, by choosing this name, indicates already that we need a fundamental change in the way we live, in terms of how we deal with natural resources but also how we deal with people.”
Given that the Catholic Church has made the fight against poverty and social justice a high priority, many organisations build their daily advocacy and lobby work for global justice on the key pillars of this teaching, he said.
But much of how these teachings are translated into action depends on the Pope and the presence of the Church’s commitment “in the field”.
“We hope for a leadership that will strengthen our efforts for a more just world,” Nilles added.
For Pastor Benardini, it will be hard for the new Pope to introduce deep changes, being an expression of Catholic conservatism.
“This Pope was very close to John Paul who had a very conservative approach. He is leading an institution with a very traditional – and non transparent – selection method,” he stressed.
The change in such rigid institutions will come about primarily through a bottom-up push, he said, from a request raised by society.
“If the pope is able to listen to the people and can bring about a progressive change of direction” that will be a good result in and of itself, he added.
“He is the third consecutive non-Italian pope. But if the Roman Curia and the Vatican remain attached to tradition, even a Pope who comes from another continent will have to struggle a lot to reproduce in Rome the more open, informal and lively approach of faith in non-European countries.”
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