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Despite High Hopes, Pope Francis' First Year Mostly Change in Style


It’s been a breathtaking year since Benedict XVI became the first pope in centuries to resign, amid allegations of scandal and mismanagement at the Vatican, and was replaced by the first pontiff from the Americas. Hopes have run high that Pope Francis would single-handedly be able to turn around the church’s fortunes.

A church built on such solid pillars can only be shaken up, it might seem, by a superman, which is how a street artist in Rome depicted the current pope.

However, it would be a mistake to think a single individual can transform a 2,000-year-old institution like the Roman Catholic Church said John Conley, a Jesuit scholar at Loyola University Maryland.

“I don’t believe in the 'great man theory' of history, that one person suddenly appears, and without any reference to all the other forces going on, can sort of turn things around,” he said in an interview.

But this baby-kissing pontiff has brought huge crowds to St. Peters Square, and he is getting many traditional Catholics to break out of their comfort zone, said Conley.

“I think he is calling the Church to follow what he is doing as pope, what he did as archbishop, to get onto the bus, get out into the marketplace, pick up the microphone, get your picket line ready to go,” he said.

The pope has showed himself to be an advocate of the poor said John Carr, a former adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference.

Carr has led a series of discussions at Georgetown University in Washington on the new pope, and he recalls a comment made at one of them by former Republican presidential adviser Michael Gerson.

“He says 'I think your new pope is a troublemaker.' And he said, ‘There’s nothing more dangerous than a troublemaker with a plan,’" recalled Gerson.

The plan Gerson was referring to was Evangelii Gaudium, a 220-page apostolic exhortation presented last fall at the Vatican. It quoted an early Christian saint who said that not sharing with the poor is tantamount to theft.

The paper angered free market advocates. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called it “pure Marxism coming from the mouth of the pope.”

Lant Pritchett, a professor of international development at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote that “by dwelling on inequality, the pope is promoting envy,” one of Christianity’s most serious categories of sin.

The pope also appeared to shake up the church’s view of homosexuality when, returning from his first foreign trip to Brazil, he held an impromptu press conference with reporters on the plane.

“If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?” he said in response to a question.

Francis has also taken steps to rein in the Vatican bank and to appoint more non-European cardinals. But don’t expect the pope to accept female clergy or artificial birth control, added Carr.

“I think if people are expecting him to reverse decades of teaching, I think they’ll be very disappointed,” he cautioned.

Carr concedes that much of what Pope Francis has brought is a change of style. But style can be as important as substance in a church that loves symbolism.
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