Pope's nice, isn't he? Someone you could spend the evening with, for blessing, or for bowling. You've seen it in the papers, you've seen it on the telly: Famous Francis, The Pious Riot. The man makes the front page where his mates make the obituaries. There's no ignoring him, and you can't fault the Church on its choice. Every business needs an advert.
A superstar small and humble
A celebrity Pope is born, and the wandering star is studio lights. Sincere concern for the poor comes, oddly, with a position of power, and it's wonderful to see a man so humble in such good stead. Much of the pretence is gone, and with it, much of the Vatican's hypocrisy. Francis has turned down residence at the Apostolic Palace in favour of more modest housing. He has been photographed kissing a man with neurofibromatosis, a condition made famous by The Elephant Man. His bishops, meanwhile, are publically reprimanded for their greed. Allegations of child abuse remain unanswered; as do the Vatican's mafia connections; money-laundering in the Vatican Bank. A shining example, then, to a thoroughly rotten bunch.
So while it's nice that Pope Francis said non-believers go to heaven too, less friendly is the Church's hasty retraction. Atheists do burn really, qualified Reverend Thomas Rosica, only three days after Francis hit the stands - though, charitably, pagans are exempt. Perhaps it will take time for the Vatican to extend an olive branch, particularly where it is so used to tightening a rack.
The Pope's criticism of homophobia, similarly, would be brilliant news, if it were only accepted by the clergy. Violence against African homosexuals continues under the eye of its cardinals; in Europe, opposition to marriage equality begins at the pulpit. Which is before we even mention birth-control, anti-Semitism, or the AIDS epidemic. Despite media fawning, there is little to be said for Francis' good intentions, unaccompanied as they are by Church action.
A camel through the eye of a needle
It is a stubbornness born of privilege, and the Church is sinfully rich. The twelve disciples of Jesus have grown into a sprawling, corporate behemoth; you begin to wonder how the Vatican, so dogmatic when it comes to condoms, reads Matthew 19:24, which says, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ Perhaps I've missed a metaphor, but I can't see many bishops passing through the eye of a needle.
Doubtless it's frustrating to Christians, to see the Church squander so much on construction; on costume; on corruption. This new Pope, famous as he is for his compassion, remains the mouthpiece of a nasty, disreputable organisation, and one responsible for enormous suffering worldwide. Though he makes a welcome change, the sickness of the Church is the same.
Still, I'd take him bowling, if he asked.