Pope’s welcome modern rhetoric must translate into action

I've travelled on "Shepherd One", as the plane carrying the pope is known, and it's very clear when you're on board how keen the pope's PR men – and yes (sigh) they are all men – are on declaring a foreign trip a "triumph".

In the case of Pope Francis's visit to Brazil, they're right. This week in Rio they're calling their famous beach front the "Popacabana'' in tribute to the mass held there on Sunday July 28, when three million people camped on the sand to catch a glimpse of the pontiff on his first visit back to Latin America since being elected pope in March.

About the worst thing that happened was when Francis's tiny Fiat Punto took a wrong turn, prompting fears for his safety. Not only did he come to no harm, the new ­message of slimmed-down frugality was also well and truly noted.

And it was this common touch – his ordinariness, his lack of pomposity, his humility – that we saw reflected back from Brazil, and the Catholic church will be stronger, and more credible, for it.

Perhaps at last we have a pope for the 21st century. Certainly, the ­signals we have seen over the past few days have a whiff of modernity about them.

Even as a cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio had already clamped down on priests who refused to baptise children born out of wedlock; now he has gone further and said gay people should not be marginalised ("If a person is gay and seeks God, who am I to judge him?" he asked). On the role of women, he said having girls as altar servers and employing a handful of senior women in the Vatican might perhaps not be quite enough. On the matter of women priests, of course, there was no debate to be had.

So we're seeing a thaw, though definitely not a revolution; a subtle but significant change of direction from a man who remains deeply conservative. You don't need to be radical to be seen as a wind of change in the Catholic hierarchy.

But as Francis is no doubt all too aware, foreign trips are the easy bits. Because the truth is that it's in the Vatican that most of his problems lie. None of his difficulties have gone away while he's been on the beach in Brazil.

The fact is that, by signalling a change of style, the new pope has raised expectations of a change of substance.

And there's certainly plenty there that needs tackling. The smell around the murky Vatican bank is very unpleasant in the Italian mid-summer heat; the issue of a non-celibate priesthood is crying out to be tackled; and even if giving women the chance to be priests isn't up for grabs, the church remains impoverished by failing to recognise and use its wealth of female talent.

There's a sense right now that Francis is on the verge of moving on these fronts and, if his pontificate is to be a genuine triumph, and not just a PR one, these are the nettles the pope has to grasp. – © Guardian News & Media 2013  

Joanna Moorhead is a former deputy editor of the Catholic Herald


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