Pope of new hope

The Roman catholic church has created history with the election by the cardinals’ conclave in the Vatican of the first non-European as the pope. The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, to be known as Francis I, will also be the first Jesuit to lead the 1.2 billion laymen and clergy of the world’s largest religion.

It marks the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the 2000-year-old faith which has shaped and influenced history and the lives of people in crucial ways all these centuries. The role of the church has diminished in most parts of the world, but the ideas and dictums of the church, expressed by the pope, still influence politics and society and the attitudes and conduct of  people.

In spite of the iconic status of the pope, the catholic church is going through a crisis in most parts.  It has shrunk and lost its sway in many places, especially in its bastion of Europe. The resignation of Pope Benedict has itself been seen as an acknowledgement of the difficulties faced by the papacy in a changing world. South America has more catholics than in any other continent. But even there the catholic church has lost members to new movements like Pentecostalism. The selection of an Argentinian is therefore timely and appropriate. It will underline the sense that the pope is not just the bishop of Rome. A pope free of the burdensome past of the Vatican can infuse a new life into the church.

Sexual scandals, debates over celibacy and appointment of women as priests, shortage of priests, challenges from new evangelical groups, charges of financial and personal misdemeanours and a perception that the politics of power overshadows religious matters have all pursued the church and weakened it. The new pope will have a challenging job setting the House of St Peter in order and making it more relevant and lively for the people. No pope can stray far from the traditional values of the church. But there is an opportunity to interpret them in a way that suits the needs of the times and the people. Institutions rejuvenate themselves by being dynamic and forward-looking. Change can always be wedded with continuity if  there is a bold vision that rejects the inessential and the outdated and accepts new ideas.

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