Saturday, 27 July 2013

BRAZIL: Beyond Pope Francis's Rio sermon

Openness, modesty, change: Pope Francis has launched a revolution in the Vatican as he seeks to clean up the Catholic Church and improve its image. In the process, the pontiff is making friends as well as enemies.

Francis is a fisher of men, much like former Pope John Paul II. Almost four months after his election on March 13, after his first, almost shy "buona sera" from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, he has taken his office to heavenly heights. He makes it easy for people to love him. They like his incongruous approach and his plain words.

Bergoglio is the first Jesuit and, since the Middle Ages, the first non-European in the papacy. He was born in Argentina, at the "end of the world," to Italian immigrant parents. It is this perspective from which he still looks at the Old World. It allows him to demonize the financial crisis, poverty and instability that are now plaguing the world. This pope lives in the present and is more political than his predecessor. But it is also clear that he will remain silent on certain issues and stick to his German predecessor's approach: the ordination of women, celibacy, abortion and gay marriage.

Benedict XVI was the pope of words, a professorial pope whose masses resembled lectures. Francis is the opposite. Instead of arguing, he appeals to people; he is best understood through his gestures and appearances. 

Francis often criticizes the "sophisticated church," which he accuses of revolving around itself and striving for power and wealth. Francis wants "a poor church and a church for the poor." He wants it to venture out to the periphery, to the margins of society. This is the concept of the "theology of the people," which influenced Francis. In the 1970s, its adherents left their rectories and moved to the slums.

Francis, on the fifth day of his first trip abroad since his election in March, went to Rio's Copacabana beach to preside at a "Way of the Cross" service commemorating Jesus' final hours as part of an international jamboree of Catholic youth, known as World Youth Day.

In his sermon, Pope Francis urged young people on Friday to change a world where food is discarded while millions go hungry, where racism and violence still affront human dignity and where politics is more associated with corruption than service.

Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to see the Argentine pope at the theatrical event on the crescent-shaped beachfront, giving him yet another of the frenzied welcomes that have defined his trip so far. It was the second time in as many days that the pope urged young people to exploit their drive and energy to change things.

During a visit to a Rio slum on Thursday, he urged them to not lose trust and not allow their hopes to be extinguished. Many young people in Brazil saw this as his support for peaceful demonstrations to bring about change. But authorities in Rio did not welcome that part of his message.

But despite that appearance, Francis still isn't the "pop star pope" many believed he was at the beginning. He is a man of action, and he operates at an astonishing pace. He acts like someone who knows that he doesn't have forever. After all, he only has half a lung, and he sways like a ship when he walks. He'll be 77 in December.

Pope Francis will have a hardworking first summer as pope, with no plans to take a break at the papal summer resistance in Castel Gandolfo. The papal secretary of state could be appointed soon and will become a key figure in bringing about the reform of the curia so often called for someone to finally put a stop to the old-boy networks, nepotism and waste of money.

The curia is currently divided into those who are concerned that the pope is overexerting himself, and those who are afraid of the new order. Challenging the world financial crisis, bankers, corruption, hunger in his sermons, during his Brazil's visit and Lampedusa, Francis is warming up to the greatest challenge: '' Reform the curia''.

One of the new pope's biggest reform projects is the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), more commonly known as the Vatican Bank. Francis is paying special attention to the IOR. Benedict did so, as well, when he appointed Ernst von Freyberg as the bank's director in February. But it was already too late, and Freyberg showed little interest in the details.

Francis, on the other hand, issued a hand-written decree in late June to form an investigative committee. Two days later, the chief accountant was arrested and on July 2, the two general directors abruptly resigned. Last week, Francis appointed a special commission to advise him directly on economic issues and create more transparency. The pope also appointed a prelate who has access to all bank meetings and reports directly to Francis.

That appointment, though, could prove to be Pope Francis' first mistake. He chose Monsignore Battista Ricca, the former administrator of the Vatican guesthouse, for the job. But Ricca was transferred to the guesthouse in 2001 for disciplinary reasons, because he was allegedly living with and maintaining a homosexual relationship with a man in the nunciature of Montevideo and was beaten up in a gay bar.

So does it exist after all, the "gay lobby" at the Vatican, whose members secure positions for each other? Did the curia deliberately conceal Ricca's past from the pope? These questions will have to remain unanswered for now, but the Ricca appointment could come back to haunt the pope.

The unfortunate situation involving the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) also seems to have been put to rest. A member of the order, Richard Williamson, had denied the Holocaust, and yet Benedict rehabilitated the archconservative bishop nonetheless. Now the Vatican's dialogue with the SSPX seems to have been suspended until further notice.

Archbishop Müller is with Francis on his trip this week to World Youth Day in Brazil. He worked as a priest in Peru and is friends with liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, who Rome punished in the 1980s because of his Marxist views. Another change under Francis is that the church will be less inclined to fight rebels within its ranks.

The fact that Francis chose Brazil as the destination for his first major trip was meant to show that the church consists of more than "that dissolute bunch from Rome, with their pomp and arrogance." Francis hopes that the sermons in Rio de Janeiro will provide a boost similar to that emanating from his visit to Lampedusa. Francis did not mince his words in Rio, directing his comments to the poor in the Varginha favela, young criminals and drug addicts.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP-Pope Francis, speaking in Rio de Janeiro-Brazil