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Pope Francis is poised to make history

Will his 'frontier culture' prevail over Vatican tradition?

  • Kagefumi Ueno, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • July 1, 2013
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Three months have passed since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first Latin American to assume the papacy. In March, the papal conclave astonished the world by entrusting the future of the Catholic Church to the "least Vaticanistic" man from Argentina.

The series of processes that took place before and after the ascension of Pope Francis, the 266th head of the Roman Catholic Church, defied conventions, and has already set off a chain reaction that may eventually turn the tide in the Catholic world.

The Catholic Church is said to have two cultures – the "culture of splendor" as exemplified by the Vatican and the "frontier culture" of clergy and religious who have taken vows of poverty, humility and devotion. It is largely thanks to the latter that the Church has retained people’s respect over the centuries. As a Jesuit, Pope Francis embodies this latter culture, a polar opposite to the Vatican culture.

Francis, who for decades stood by the poor and lived a life of simplicity and humility, has started to introduce "frontier culture" to the Vatican by simplifying official functions and the papal environment. Together with a preference for direct conversations with people, Francis is generating sympathy within the Catholic world and could change the very culture of the Vatican.

The Vatican is predominantly Euro-centric, giving little say to non-European regions such as the Americas and Asia, which account for three quarters of the world’s Catholic population. The full voice of each continent does not reach the Vatican.

Will the new pope from Latin America seek a break from the past to create a pluralistic Catholic Church that better reflects the realities of each continent by attempting to decentralize the existing structure that is yet centralized around Rome? How will he counter those who resist the "de-Europeanizing" process? We should watch closely.

The previous pope, Benedict XVI, never visited Asia during his reign. In addition, Japan has been bereft of a cardinal for the past three years. I hope that Pope Francis, who once volunteered to work in Japan, will give proper weight to Japan and Asia. I also expect the Catholic Church of Japan to make an effort to realize a papal visit here.

Sexual abuse by clergy is just one of a number of institutional maladies that plague the Vatican and which are characterized by a cover-up mentality and lack of self-corrective capability that are rather common among giant organizations. But, these maladies have unnecessarily discredited Catholic believers.

The fact that a "Vatican outsider" was deliberately chosen to steer the Church is an indication of the severity of the situation in which Catholics find themselves. Francis has moved swiftly, appointing eight cardinals to an "Advisory Council" whose members include only one from the Vatican bureaucracy, while three were chosen from English- and German-speaking countries where the Churches is deemed to be more reform-minded. The next important step will be the appointment of a secretary of state, the number two man in the Roman Curia.

In addition, Francis is expected to make vigorous appeals to the entire world. He will impress the world by his presence through the Church’s expanded dialogues with Jews and Muslims, and through extending papal messages on such themes as poverty, the environment and human rights.

Pope Francis has thus brought with him winds of change. We will watch with endless interest whether he will transform the cultures and traits of the entire Catholic world as his reform of the Vatican gathers full momentum.

Francis will inevitably encounter resistance from the Vatican bureaucracy and the Europeans. However, propelled by reforming zeal, Pope Francis is, as an "autocrat" with both authority and absolute power, in a position to make history.

Professor Kagefumi Ueno of Kyorin University in Tokyo is a civilizational essayist and former Ambassador to the Holy See. This article first appeared in Japanese in the

Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, May 16, 2013

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