A pastoral Pope alone cannot deliver change and renewal

Pope Francis walks past musicians before a general audience (AP)

It does not seem like a year ago, the sight of those doors opening and the Cardinal Camerlengo stepping out onto the balcony with the historic formula containing the words “Georgium Marium cardinalem sanctae romanae ecclesiae Bergoglio”. At the sound of that “Georgium” I knew we were in for a surprise. By the time I heard the “Bergoglio” part I was pretty amazed.

There was about an hour, if memory serves, between the white smoke, the sound of bells and the announcement of great joy. Five minutes or so after the first puff of smoke the BBC were on the phone asking me to go on Newsnight, but I was too excited to give them a proper answer. For me white smoke and euphoria are forever linked. And when the announcement came, I was overjoyed: it was not simply because it was this Pope; for a Catholic like me, any Pope will do.

A year later one can expect the euphoria to have dissipated somewhat, but oddly, it has not. Pope Francis continues to be a superstar, including in some of the less expected parts of the media. There is no sign, as yet, of the honeymoon ending. There is every sign that Pope Francis, like John Paul II before him, will continue to be a great media player.

This is remarkable, given the way the media demonised gentle Benedict XVI, and in the most infantile manner possible, harping on about his supposedly German origins (he is of course Bavarian) and his involvement with the Hitler Youth. That the media loves Pope Francis is a good thing, in that it gives us a break from this infantile discourse, though it replaces one infantilised discourse, perhaps, with another. Hatred of a public figure is often irrational, but adulation can be equally so. That we have moved from “Yah boo!” to “Yay!” is certainly a welcome change in the mood music, but not a sign that the commentariat has become any more intelligent.

It is still only one year in to this Papacy, but we need to be on guard against a personality cult. There is more to the Church than the Pope. As Francis has constantly highlighted, the pressing need of the Church today is a better class of bishop, as Vatican Two was supposed to ensure. In fact this promise has been constantly deferred, and a papal personality cult may be one reason for this failure. To look to the figure in white at the expense of all others is never good. A pastoral Pope alone cannot deliver change and renewal: only a pastoral college of bishops can do that, and pastoral parish priests.

Peter Stanford, formerly editor of this paper, has a long and thoughtful piece in the Sunday Telegraph, which reveals the complexity of this Pope. Despite all the coverage, Stanford shows, Pope Francis is an enigma. Why, for example, did he never once consent to meet the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo? Why is he unpopular with his fellow Jesuits, whose provincial he once was? Why, (I would add), as he himself has revealed in his book On Heaven and Earth, has he not voted in an election for the last forty years?

Stanford’s article, which deals with the Pope’s prehistory as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, may point to the sort of Church that Pope Francis wants: a Church where Bishops take public transport – in other words, are accessible to people; and a Church that pours its human and monetary resources not into city-centre churches, or comfortable parishes, but churches and parishes on the edge of cities, in the slums. When in charge of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio shifted the centre of gravity of the diocese away from the established areas of the city and towards the outskirts, places where there was little or no infrastructure.

The Church has a history of doing this: in Rome itself, much effort has been made to establish parishes in the periferia, a place that resembles the edges of a Latin American city not a little. In Nairobi, religious orders are to be found in places like Kibera, where one million people live with virtually no facilities of any kind. Again, in the third world, bishops tend not to go around with an entourage that insulates them from their flock. But if this is the type of Church that the Pope wants to see in Europe, then he faces a monumental task; a task, moreover, that he will not be able to perform alone.

Pope Francis represents, one year into his papacy, the promise of a change in ecclesial direction: but so far it remains just that – a promise.