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What do you think of Pope Francis?

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That’s today’s buzz. Both hope and speculation fuel the question. Hopes are high. “He’s strong on the ‘pastoral,’” says Fr. Edwin Manio, RCJ.

It’s legend now—how he lived before the papacy: small apartment, riding public transport, cooking his meals, going into the streets; what he did after his election: picked up his luggage, paid his hotel bill, rode the van with the rest, refused the Vatican car, refused a raised platform to receive cardinals, slipped through security, waded into the crowd; and at his installation: no red velvet cape, no red shoes, a simple pectoral cross, a simple ring, a simple white cassock.

The choice of “Francis,” after the poor saint of Assisi, left no doubt that he is walking the talk called “one with the poor” and “listening to the people.”

True, the big part of the call of the hour is for a pastoral pope, a shepherd who gathers and does not separate. He’s “coming closer” and the faithful are ready to believe 101 percent that that’s not just a “style” but a signal for a genuine “gospel of simplicity” with compassion at the core.

Is Pope Francis poised to start the shedding of Church trappings that do not become a shepherd? Will the pomp and pageantry, the lace and the fur, the gems and the gold, go? Will the Church drop the royal lexicon: crown, throne, reign, prince, palace, interregnum, etc.? Certainly, Jesus did not say, “My kingdom is of this world.”

But herein enters the speculation. The attempt to simplify such externals (mimicked from the monarchies of Europe which have shed much of their trappings), walks right into an ecclesiastical structure and culture that reinforce “royalty.”

Ahead lies a web of royal trappings reflective of a “monarchist-absolutist papacy” (Hans Kung, NYT, 2/27/13) connected to unspeakable wealth breeding corruption, cronyism and intrigue (Vatileaks and Vatican Bank), held together by rigidity and centralism cast in stone—a deadly compound that can overwhelm any pope and that has found its way down to some bishoprics and parishes. Archbishop Oscar Cruz’s call for a lifestyle check of bishops is a good idea.

Thus, another part of the call of the hour is for a pope who is a strong manager to untangle the gridlock. It’s a hard mix, almost like oil and water, that looms before Pope Francis: a compassionate shepherd and a cold administrator. He has to manage a balancing act, part of which is already in his heart and the other, now probably churning in his mind. The Pope will be pulled fore and aft, but he is not a Jesuit for nothing—a background that we fervently trust has deposited a liberal layer to his theology.

What, for example, must be done to the Curia, “the central organ of church government” in need of reform and, at the same time, “the chief obstacle to any thorough reform of the Catholic Church” (Kung,  ibid), whose shadowy workings are largely unknown to most Catholics? Also, what has really happened to issues hammered out by Vatican II?

Yet another part of the call of the hour is the fusion of that pastoral love and resolute leadership and its descent to “the trenches” where we are. At the end of the terms of John Paul II and of Benedict XVI, the burning issues were the same: the cluster of sexuality—reproductive health, birth control, homosexuality, celibacy, marriage, divorce, condoms, abortion—cresting with clerical sex scandals. Include the full role of women. Lately in the limelight is the cluster of corruption—cronyism, money, transparency. No longer can anything lie hidden.

The point is: Up to now, on a third papacy, not much has changed. The hierarchy and Catholics at large have hardly come closer to each other. And the “disconnection is becoming wider” (Tablet, 2/16/13). On one hand is the Church’s intransigence over “doctrinal purity,” on the other is the need for priest and prelate to keep abreast of the “development of doctrine,” to reexamine moral or traditional positions or stands in which, yes, they could be wrong, and to participate in no-holds-barred dialogues.

The Pastor-Leader must realize that the fields are no longer the hills of Jerusalem or Bethlehem on that starry night but squatter colonies with all their attendant miseries, concrete corporate jungles, the borderless Internet, emerging configurations of families, collapsing environment, leaps in science, questioning minds—globally—and the endless enticements of the mall in the neighborhood.

Beware, Pope Francis says, of “the spiritual sickness of a self-referential Church” in which the institution is reverenced like a god. Combined with a deferential people—“We are here to support the priest.” “Filipinos love their priests so much… they don’t expose the erring ones.”—the two will just mold each other into statues, or puppets.

Always, the Spirit hovers over the Church, in good times and in bad. But as in the conclave, the Spirit will not pick the pope. We have to do the doing.

Eight years ago, I warmed up to Benedict XVI, the piano-playing “intellectual heavy.” I wrote “Dear Pope, surprise us” (Inquirer, 5/21/05). Today I ask the same. Will Francis, the “Pope of Hope,” surprise?

Asuncion David Maramba is a retired professor, book editor and occasional journalist. Comments to marda_ph @yahoo.com, fax 8284454.


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