Article excerpt

Byline: A.N. Wilson

A Jesuit pope, a golden opportunity for change.

Habemus Papam! The first Jesuit. The first pope from the Americas. And, at first, bafflement on St. Peter's Square since Jorge Mario Bergoglio wasn't exactly a household name.

Then, there was an absolutely palpable joy, spreading first around the square, and then out, around the world. The feeling, an irresistible one, was one of relief that we have a new man. "You know the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome," said Francis I, the freshly elected pontiff with a little laugh, as he stood on the balcony in front of the faithful. "It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth. But here we are ... "

Indeed, here we are. With these few words, the new pope made a gentle allusion to what everyone had been dreading--namely, more of the same.

Poor old Benedict XVI. Though he wasn't exactly God's Rottweiler as his enemies in the press had depicted him, Benedict was a Vatican insider, the consummate wheeler-dealer. He knew the Curia, the Papal Court, through and through. He knew its devious ways. He knew--he must have known--the extent of its outright criminality. And perhaps, the longer he remained pope, he got to know too much.

When a pope goes--whether through death or resignation--the whole Curia resigns and has to be reappointed. One theory has it that Benedict realized a clean sweep was necessary and that the only way for it to happen was to resign, thereby forcing the resignation of the Curia mafiosi, who had presided over so many appalling scandals, including the systematic cover-up of child abuse, sleazy sex scandals, money laundering, corruption of all kinds, and murder. (A couple spring readily to mind: the assassination of a Swiss Guard who acted as a gay prostitute to priests and Vatican bureaucrats--killed just before Benedict XVI took office--and the 1982 murder of Roberto Calvi, found hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London after $1.2 billion of Vatican money had gone missing. Beyond those deaths, many of us will never believe that the patriarch of Venice, who lasted just three weeks after being elected as Pope John Paul I, died a natural death.)

The Curia, made up of men up to their throats in all these shady dealings, has held the Roman church in its iron grip since the 19th century--really since the papacy lost its temporal power at the time of Garibaldi.

Now there is the hope for change.

If I had to be cheeky and write the new pope an open letter, what would I beg him to do--on top of reforming the Curia, cleaning up the banking scandal, and drawing a line under the child-abuse scandal by a full acknowledgment of the extent of the appalling problem?

I think I'd ask two things of Pope Francis, while knowing he has rather a lot on his desk right now: one would be to look at the land that gave birth to the Savior, and at the whole Middle East. All over the Eastern Mediterranean, and in North Africa, the descendants of the earliest Christians--Easter Orthodox, Copts, and others--are being persecuted. In the lands that gave birth to Christianity, Christianity is dying before our eyes. Please, Bishop Francis, tread in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi, who went to the Crusaders to preach peace, who went to the Muslims and spoke to them of Christ.

Above all, I would ask, go to the Eastern Christians and see if it is not possible to heal the wounds of Christendom and unite the church once more. That which unites Christians--faith in Christ--must be more important than that which divides, and if only the bishop of Rome and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople belonged to the same church, the persecuted Christians of the east would feel so empowered, so enriched. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Catholics were in communion with their fellow Christians in Israel-Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, and Egypt? …