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Why Pope Francis can open the doors of the Catholic Church to the future

A pastor and his people: Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio poses after giving mass at the complex of the San Lorenzo soccer club.


We know Pope Francis is going to be different. The Catholic Church began to change the moment he appeared before the crowd in St. Peter's Square in deliberately simple papal garments and asked the people to pray for him – the first Jesuit pope, the first pope named after the impoverished and beloved St. Francis, the first pope from what the church still considers the New World, and perhaps the first pope to take the bus.

Small things matter hugely when a new pope first meets his global congregation. In an institution where image is all-powerful, 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires laid down a challenge to the guardians of the sanctified status quo when he advertised his humility on the Vatican's main stage.

"He's shown people that a pope can be down to earth, that he doesn't have to wear red shoes, ride around in a limousine and put on a heavy gold pectoral cross," says John Thavis, author of The Vatican Diaries. "These gestures and images will open doors to the Church, which is what the electors at the conclave feel needed to be done – because if the pope is simply hammering away at what the Church teaches, that's not getting a very good reception in many parts of the world."

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It is a change in style that also marks a change in papal priorities. Benedict XVI may have humanized the sacred office of the pope by resigning from a post that his predecessors left only in death, but otherwise his papacy was marked by an intellectual remoteness that prized the correctness of orthodoxy over a more generous sense of inclusivity.

Pope Francis is no radical, and he's likely to disappoint disaffected Catholics who seek a new approach to social issues such as birth control, abortion and gay marriage. "He's a moral and theological conservative, and he's an institutional man," says Michael Higgins, a Vatican analyst.

But even an institution as tradition-bound and historically minded as the Roman Catholic Church finds wide room for variation in the implementation of its faith and the performance of its leaders. Institutional behaviour begins with the tone set by the man at the top. "The hope is that, if they see a holy man who lives like Jesus did instead of like a prince," says Mr. Thavis, "this will be attractive."

Benedict, for all this skills as a theologian, tended to narrow the definition of orthodox Catholicism, and arguably sacrificed the emotional, heartfelt side of faith. Pope Francis is quite different, a pastoral Jesuit who moved among the poor in a noisy South American city and confronted the meaning of his faith at a more basic and more human level.

"This is not a man who is likely to be a doctrinal enforcer," says Steven Avella, a Catholic priest and historian of religion at Marquette University. "He gets the relationship between a pastor and his people: Harshness and unkindness don't come easily to him."

As a Jesuit, Pope Francis has also been trained to be open in his understanding of broader realities, and more tolerant of deviations from prescribed norms. Witness his upcoming book On Heaven and Earth, a collection of interfaith dialogues with a rabbi.

"I think he will look at difficult and divisive issues through a new lens that could lead to the possibility of a more peaceful resolution," says Gordon Rixon, a Jesuit and dean of Regis College at the University of Toronto.

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Numerous commentators have seized on his choice of the name Francis as an indicator that he will follow the saint's model – not just by taking a less hierarchical approach to his office, but by making it his goal to rebuild the Church as the barefoot friar once did.

In the lead-up to the papal conclave, many Cardinals talked about the need to shake up the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy often seen as a barrier between the papacy and the wider Church. Pope Francis must now carry out that formidable task, and the fact that he is 76 will give him a good reason to hurry his reforms.

This could lead to a streamlining of bloated departments – some Cardinals have even questioned the need for the troubled Vatican Bank. Just as importantly, the reforming spirit could also change the imperious Vatican house style to something more in Francis's image. "If you're going to act puffed up around him," says Rev. Rixon, "you're bound to look pretty silly."

The greater goal for this humble pope will be to renounce some of his newfound grandeur and restore authority to local levels of the faith. "The fact that power is so acutely centralized in Rome has contributed to the Church's inability to respond to pressing issues such as clerical abuse," says Dr. Higgins. "Francis will begin the process of devolution, I hope, by trusting local bishops and holding them accountable. That will lead to the revitalization of the Church, I believe, and help it recover its lost credibility."

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