FIRST, there was the plume of white smoke emerging from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday evening. Then, an hour or so later, the arrival of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires on a balcony overlooking St Peter's Square to proclaim the centuries-old tiding — "Habemus papam", Latin for "We have a Pope". Thus, after two days of caucusing in the ritual conclave, 114 of his brethren elevated a humble prince of the church from a faraway parish to be the head of one and a half billion adherents of the world's largest Christian denomination.
Right from the start, it was obvious that this papacy would be different. The new pope tersely addressed the throng of the faithful, the curious and the cynical press corps who packed the large square facing on the impressive basilica which is the seat of the Roman Catholic church and asked for their blessing before giving one of his own. He chose the name Francis, after St Francis of Assisi, the son of a wealthy family who in the early 13th century left all that for a life of service to the poor and founded three orders.
After the vote, Bergoglio chose not to sit on the papal throne but stood as his fellow princes of the church each made their oath of obedience, then joined some of his "brother cardinals" in a small bus to return to the Santa Marta residence on the grounds of the Vatican where they were billeted for the conclave. The next morning, he ducked into the modest hotel where he had been staying before that to collect his belongings and pay the bill. Then he gave his first public mass, in which he called on the church to stick to its knitting and shun modern temptations. Speaking off the cuff in Italian, Francis told the cardinals: "We can walk all we want, we can build many things, but if we don't proclaim Jesus Christ, something is wrong. We would become a compassionate NGO and not a church."
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born to a humble family in the Argentine capital in 1936 and never lost that modest touch. He eschewed the comfortable, even luxurious lifestyle common to the upper layers of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather than moving into the residence reserved for the cardinal of Buenos Aires, he lived in a modest apartment where he cooked his own meals, did his own chores and travelled by foot, bus and subway.
Well, that part of things will change, since, as a pope, he now becomes not only head of a large religious institution and leader of enough people to populate a continent, but is now also a head of state. Under the Lateran Treaty of 1929, St Peter's Basilica, the square in front of it and the adjacent lands and buildings were declared to be a sovereign state, known as Vatican City.
At 44 hectares with a population of around 800, it is by far the smallest independent state in the world, even though it lies totally within the ancient metropolis of Rome. Therefore, when he travels, he will do so in style and will be surrounded by the extensive security which, alas, is an onerous requirement for even the most humble of us.
Change comes to the Vatican bureaucracy
Nevertheless, Bergoglio's inheritance of the shoes of the fisherman will surely send seismic tremors throughout the Curia — the collection of senior clerics who comprise the Vatican bureaucracy. These men relish the trappings of power as they engage in the infighting typical of any large organisation, and work towards amassing more power in their hands while enjoying fine dining at Rome's leading restaurants.
In their discussions before entering the conclave, the cardinals widely discussed curbing the Curia, a subject the newly crowned pope regards as a priority. But what many others — both Catholics and outsiders — are wondering is how much the new pope will move towards bringing the hoary old institution into the 21st century.
Pope Francis comes from the Society of Jesus — in fact, he is the first Jesuit ever to ascend to the top of the church hierarchy — but doesn't share the radical views of many in the order. He is an orthodox Catholic, a solemn man firmly attached to the centuries-old tenets of the church, such as its attitudes towards contraception, abortion, the ordination of women, celibacy for priests and homosexual marriage.
On this subject, he strongly opposed his government's decision to allow gay marriage, describing it as "an attempt to destroy God's plan".
In addition to objections to the ban on birth control, abortion and same-sex marriage, there are increasing calls for the church to end its requirement that priests be celibate and against allowing women to be ordained. The church contorts itself into unrecognisable shapes in its arguments about the priesthood. There is no biblical basis for celibacy or against female priests, which many branches of Christianity allow without any problems. But religions — of all stripes — are known for their discrimination against women as leaders of the flock. But in fact, the man regarded as the first pope — Peter, senior among the apostles — was married, as were many priests and deacons of the early church. As far back as the third century, the church denounced the practice, but priests, abbots and bishops continued to have families, either publicly or in secret.
After the death of Charlemagne, head of the Holy Roman Empire, European society degenerated into a string of entities ruled over by feudal lords, who picked and chose who they wanted to run local churches, and saw the start of the sale of church offices and services. By the ninth century clerics were more interested in pastimes like hunting, carousing or fathering children than in looking after the concerns of their parishioners. A serious backlash ensued.
A new monastic order, the Cluniacs, began the enormous task of cleaning up the stables. It was named for an abbey founded in 910 at Cluny in France, and was the only order in which a talented peasant could rise as high as his talents would take him. An early reform pope — Nicholas II — issued a decree in 1059 putting the election of future popes solely in the hands of the College of Cardinals. Sixteen years later, Pope Gregory VII clamped down with a decree effectively banning married priests, and the First Lateran Council formalised it in 1123.
This requirement goes against nature, since human beings, like other animals as well as plants, are sexual. Together with the need for food and protection of the young, sexuality is among the strongest of natural imperatives. However, for some people, celibacy is a quite attainable and even desirable goal. They can dedicate their lives to serving a cause, an ideal, or a God, while vowing to avoid a variety of pleasures and urges. More power to them. But that's voluntary; requiring people to do so is another matter.
The church's adherence to these traditions, rituals and attitudes is an important factor in its endurance over the centuries. Ironically, though, it is also a serious weakness, as it displays an inability or reluctance to be relevant while society develops and progresses. It would bring no shame for the church to re-visit priestly celibacy, the ordination of women and contraception. As for abortion and homosexuality, don't expect that bunch of cassocked old men who have been so adamant about these subjects to make any changes any time soon.