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As has almost everybody else. There is almost universal recognition of the new Pontiff as a down to earth, humble leader, keen to dispense with many of the ornate trappings that normally go with the role. He is the new broom, and already seems to be sweeping through the Vatican. Many are hoping his election, which recognises the shift of Catholicism to the global south, will also bring fresh thinking and renewal to the Church worldwide.

Vatican officials reportedly offered Pope Francis an elaborate gold pectoral cross to wear around his neck before stepping onto the balcony, but in a sign he will bring his own style to the papacy, he told them he would prefer to keep the very simple cross that he had worn as a bishop. And the stories kept coming: the Pope who refuses to ride in the papal limousine, and who pays for his own hotel bill. As Archbishop in Argentina, he catered for himself in simple accommodation and used public transport, and has been praised as a leader with a heart for the poor who is popular with local people.

After several years in which the Catholic Church has endured unprecedented negative media coverage, particularly in the wake of USA sex abuse scandals, Pope Francis is the good news story that it has desperately needed.

Good News for the Poor

Coming from humble origins, Bergoglio has always seen himself as a man of the people, often speaking up for the cause of the poor during his ministry in Argentina.

Born in Argentina into a family of seven, his father was an Italian immigrant railway worker, and his mother a housewife. He became a priest at 32, nearly a decade after losing a lung due to respiratory illness and quitting his chemistry studies. Despite his late start, he was leading the local Jesuit community within four years.

He is the first Pope to use the name Francis, chosen as a sign of his commitment to the poor. Francis of Assisi was a 13th-century Italian saint who took a vow of poverty and founded the Franciscan monastic order.

At a press conference, the Pope said Francis of Assisi was, ‘The man of the poor, the man of peace. The man who loved and cared for creation ? and in this moment we don’t have such a great relationship with creation. The man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man.’ With a sigh he added, ‘Oh, how I would like a poor Church and a Church for the poor.’

The new spirit of simple living which Francis is hoping to bring to the Vatican and the wider Catholic Church has been received positively by other Catholic leaders. ‘Having worked in the Vatican for some time, there are a number of things that do need to be stripped away,’ says James Parker from the Catholic Bishops Conference in England and Wales. ‘We all sometimes get stuck within our own trappings of comfort and traditions. Hopefully this is a man who will be able to bring more of a light-filled sense of what the gospel is about ? to the Church and to humanity globally ? but first and foremost to the Vatican itself.’

An Evangelical Pope?

Historical grudges and theological disputes have strained relations between evangelical churches and Rome in the past; nonetheless, evangelical leaders around the world have been heartened at the selection of the new leader.

International evangelist Luis Palau, who is from Argentina himself, says he ‘exploded’ when he heard the news. He praised the Pope as ‘respectful of all sides of Christianity’, saying that the press had referred to him as ‘the evangelical Pope’ since 2008. ‘I’ve met him several times, gone to his place, we’ve talked, we’ve prayed together. He builds bridges to other Christian groups, like evangelical Christians, which is a high percentage in Latin America. He’s a real friend,’ says Palau.

Alongside his commitment to justice and poverty, Francis continues in the footsteps of his predecessor Benedict XVI’s morally conservative views on abortion and homosexuality. He took a strong stand against the introduction of gay marriage in his home country, describing it as ‘an attempt to destroy God’s plan’, making him unpopular with Argentinian President Kirchner.

Alongside thousands of evangelicals, he led Catholics in large scale protests against the proposed changes in 2010 (which nevertheless passed).

Gregory Venables, the Anglican Bishop of Argentina, counts Francis as a friend of evangelicals: ‘He is much more of a Christian, Christ-centred and Spirit-filled, than a mere churchman. He believes the Bible as it is written.’ He also extols Bergoglio’s enthusiasm to build strong bridges with evangelical brethren. ‘I have been with him on many occasions…He always makes me sit next to him and invariably makes me take part and often do what he as cardinal should have done,’ he says. ‘He called me to have breakfast with him one morning, and told me very clearly that the Ordinariate was quite unnecessary and that the Church needs us as Anglicans.’

The Heartland of Catholicism

Francis is the first non-European Pope in 1,200 years, and the first ever from Latin America. His selection reflects global changes in the faith. Whereas 100 years ago the majority of Catholics in the world lived in Europe, today they live in Africa, South America and Asia. With more than 40% of the world’s Catholic population coming from Latin America, the continent could be described as the ‘heartland’ of the faith.

‘The Catholic Church has clearly accepted and given prominence to the fact that the centre of gravity of world Christianity has shifted to the global south,’ says Thomas Schirrmacher, theologian for the World Evangelical Alliance. ‘Although Popes from Poland and Germany were already a step away from Italy, the new step is away from Europe...to the regions where the masses of Christians live.’

Yet, despite enormous growth in the first half of the 20th century, Catholicism in South America has been under pressure in the last few decades. The percentage of South Americans who call themselves Catholic has declined from 90% in the first half of the 20th century to 72% today. There has also been a drop in actual church attendance. In Argentina, 76% of the population are Catholic, but only 10 to 20% actually attend Mass regularly. Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, but the share of self-identified Catholics in Brazil dropped from approximately three-quarters in 2000 to about two-thirds in 2010.

A Pope from South America is likely to rally Latin American Catholics in their churchgoing for a time, especially in Argentina. But the drop-off in churchgoing isn’t just about increased secularism in Latin America; there is also strong competition from the rapidly growing Pentecostal and charismatic church movement.

Renewal in the Church

Government figures show that 90% of the new churches established in Argentina between 2008 and 2011 were evangelical Pentecostal churches. There was a new charismatic church being opened every day. The same story is true across the continent. Since the influx of Pentecostalism in the 1970s, the religious landscape of Latin America has changed beyond recognition. Brazil now has millions of charismatics, the largest church boasting a membership of over 300,000. As of 2005, there were some 75 million charismatic and Pentecostal believers in South America, with the number growing year on year.

The phenomenon has been nothing short of a revival across the continent, but it has had an inevitable impact on Catholicism, as members have turned away from traditional forms of church practice. Peter Williams of Catholic Voices believes that the Catholic Church in South America is waking up to some hard lessons. ‘One of the reasons Pentecostals have done well in South America is because they came to a continent where the Church had been able to rest on its laurels for quite a long while,’ he told Premier Christian Radio. ‘There wasn’t serious competition, as it were.’

In some cases this has resulted in outright hostility from the Catholic Church towards the new charismatic churches, labelling them ‘sects’ or ‘cults’. In turn there has often been a view among charismatics in Latin America that Catholicism is ‘spiritually dead’, and so the divisions have built up. But there is now a growing renewal movement within Catholicism itself.

‘I think what’s happening in the Catholic Church in South America now is renewal ? a greater emphasis on what Pentecostals brought, which is the charismatic gifts and the charismatic renewal,’ says Williams.

‘One of the things Pentecostals were able to do was to ask, “Why do you believe this, that and the other, praying to Our Lady and the saints?” There are great answers to those questions, but often Catholics have not been best educated to give the answers. So one of the ways in which evangelisation will happen is to engage with ordinary Catholics and allow them to be really well catechised and know the reasons for the hope they have within them.’

A Charismatic Pope?

We know that Francis intends to put action for the poor at the centre of his ministry, and wants to revive the Catholic Church where it has stagnated. With his openness to evangelicals already established, perhaps more than any previous Pope, he will also be prepared to throw his weight behind the growing Catholic Charismatic Renewal in South America.

The Catholic Charismatic Renewal was birthed in the USA in the 1970s and is today an officially recognised part of the Catholic Church, with 119 million members in 230 countries. With an emphasis on the gifts of healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues and deliverance ministry, it has seen strong growth in South America in recent decades.

Charles Whitehead, a British leader in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, says he and his wife, Sue, were ‘absolutely delighted’ when Bergoglio’s name was pronounced from St Peter’s. ‘I had begun to feel increasingly confident that this was the man the cardinal electors were going to choose,’ he says. Whitehead met the cardinal in 2005 while leading a delegation of church leaders to Buenos Aires to meet the leaders of different churches and fellowships. They had come to further the vision of the Charismatic Renewal ? renewal in the Holy Spirit, greater unity among Christians, and the call to take the gospel to the whole world. The first stop on their visit was to see the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, José Bergoglio.

‘He received us very warmly, welcoming us to his city and clearly expressing his support for our vision and mission,’ says Whitehead. ‘As we talked together it was immediately clear that here was a man who was already doing what we had come to promote. We found him to be a gracious, humble, humorous, courageous and very intelligent man, pastorally sensitive, prayerful, and totally committed to the person of Jesus Christ and the task of making him known to all.’


Whitehead says that the short time spent with Bergoglio in 2005 convinced him that he was ‘a remarkable man of God’. ‘I’m eagerly looking forward to the Holy Spirit powerfully working through him in surprising ways in the weeks and months ahead.’

Pope Francis is the man entrusted with steering the Catholic Church through turbulent times. His belief in simple living and care for the poor has already made an impact on a watching world in the West, but he also has the potential to revitalise the Catholic Church on his home continent. 

 However he gets the job done, it will be done with trademark humility. One of the first things Pope Francis asked the gathered pilgrims to do for him after his election was to pray for him. Whitehead recalls a similar, albeit smaller, incident during their stay. ‘As our discussions came to an end and we prepared to leave, he knelt down and asked us to pray for him ? particularly the women, whose prayers were always very powerful! Hands were laid on him as we prayed for him and with him, and we left with his encouragement and blessing for all that we were going to do in the days ahead.'

Five surprising acts in the Pope’s first weeks

1. He takes the bus: Just hours after his election, and to much surprise, Pope Francis chose to join the other cardinals on the bus back from the Sistine Chapel, rather than taking the Vatican limousine.

2. He makes his own calls: When you’re the head of the Catholic Church, it would be safe to say that there are people ready to serve at your beck and call. But rather than ask an assistant to cancel his newspaper subscription back home in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis made the telephone call himself.

3. Prison visits: In a break from the tradition of holding the Maundy Thursday service at St Peter’s Basilica or in the Church of St John in Lateran, Pope Francis chose to conduct the service in a young offender’s prison. At the prison, Pope Francis also washed the feet of 12 of the inmates.

4. He shunned the Apostolic Palace: Rather than setting up home in the opulent surrounds of the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis has elected to stay put in the Vatican guest house. Although he’s moved to a slightly larger suite than the one he stayed in for the conclave, it is far more modest in comparison.

5. His choice of papal attire: Pope Francis has already hit the headlines for his style choices. Opting to retain his silver crucifix, rather than the gold pectoral cross, and rejecting a solid gold ring in favour of a gold-plated silver ring, simplicity is already a hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy.


// @christianitymag