A Third World Pope!

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The newly elected Pontiff has a large and challenging agenda as he defends the Church from various detractors, thinks NOEL G DESOUZA

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The world was astounded when the Cardinals Conclave in Rome selected an Argentinian, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires as the next Pope. As Archbishop, Bergoglio was entrusted to look after the Eastern Catholics in Argentina, who include adherents of the Syro-Malabar Malankara rite Catholics. Bergoglio, who took the name of Pope Francis, is the first Pope from a non-European country in a thousand years, but he has strong ties to Italy from where his father migrated to Argentina.

During those thousand years, the Catholic Church became increasingly European in its management and direction. That period covered the colonial era when European influence permeated the subjugated colonies in a major part of the world. European languages became an important medium of communication within the colonies and with other countries. English and French are the best examples, along with Portuguese and Spanish, which were the languages of the two first colonising countries.

Pope Francis is a Jesuit. The Catholic Church has broken with tradition by selecting a Jesuit. The Jesuits (Society of Jesus) are missionaries. They live simple lives and adhere to a vow of poverty. Pope Paul has lived a simple life by not occupying the archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires, by using public transport and not a chauffer-driven limousine, and even by cooking his own meals.

Pope Francis is the first Pope from the Americas. Latin America has the world’s biggest number of Catholics. Brazil, its largest country, is an emerging giant with a large land area (eight and half million square kilometres), a large Catholic population (nearly 194 million), and a strong industrial base. Several Latin American countries are tolerant in their Catholicism. Some of these countries have slaves who had been brought from Africa. Some Afro-Brazilians sects practice a syncretic form of worship which incorporates voodoo-type rituals.

There has been concern that during the reign of former Pope Benedict XVI, Catholicism has declined in Latin America particularly in Brazil, whilst Protestants have increased in number. It is estimated that Catholics, once ninety percent of Brazilians in 1970, are now less than sixty percent. Benedict failed to draw large crowds in Brazil where the Catholic-sponsored World Youth Day is scheduled in 2014.

There are signs that Pope Francis will give up at least part of the pomp and glory that has characterised the Catholic Church for centuries. Soon after his appointment, he appeared at the traditional window which overlooks St Peter’s Square in Rome in a plain white cassock, and not in the scarlet coloured cardinals regalia.

It is very surprising that St Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit Order and its best-known saint, has not been mentioned by Pope Francis. The Jesuit zeal for missionary work was started by the Saint who conducted the major part of his mission in India. Jesuits make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The focus of the Order is missionary work. Pope Francis is well moulded in the Jesuit way-of-life. He has the missionary zeal of the founders of the Jesuit order. Like them, he is able to communicate with the so-called ‘Third World’ without losing sight of the European world.

St Francis Xavier was sent to India by the Portuguese King John III because the King was concerned that Catholics in India were losing the principles of the Church. Arriving in Goa in 1542, Francis Xavier began training priests by founding the Seminary of Saint Paul where the University of Goa was established on the lines of the universities of France. The first printing press in India was set up there.

Francis Xavier was able to learn foreign languages and communicate with alien peoples. He established communion with the Eastern rites Catholics in what is now Kerala. St Francis learnt the Konkani language of Goa and translated prayers in it, as well as writing hymns.

It is difficult to say whether Pope Francis will be successful. It will depend on how long his ministry lasts and the co-operation which he gets. Many of the issues facing the Church, such as abuse, are being investigated in different jurisdictions like Australia, Canada and the USA. However, Pope Francis has made some decisions which the Church should have made some time ago. He has swiftly spoken about the permissibility of using condoms in preventing the spread of disease. This is particularly important for Africa where HIV has spread rampantly. The one important issue which Pope Francis will have to deal with is the relationship with the Islamic world. Benedict XVI criticised Muslims. His overtures to Turkey were not fruitful.