The locus of authority in the Catholic Church is shifting from the First World to the Third World. That’s where the faithful are growing, that’s where Mass attendance is still high.
So we have a Pope who is from Latin America now, warm-hearted, voluble, impulsive. Someone who has the Argentinian barrios closer to his heart than the old treasures of Europe or the jostling for power in the halls of the Vatican.
Sometime soon, we’ll have a Pope from Africa. Someone who will think of alternative marriage arrangements as a byproduct of Western decadence and unacceptable, but who is likely to feel more sympathetic towards polygamy and include his ancestors in the veneration of saints.
In much of sub-Saharan Africa, Catholicism is a new religion, not ancient in a local sense. It began with missionaries who came in the late 19th century, or the 1930s, or the ’50s. It is tied up with detested practices of colonialism and settler culture but also with material benefits, schooling, hospitals and indigenized Masses. It is different to the history of the Church in Latin America but there are shared trajectories and the same concern for the poor.
To understand Pope Francis is to understand where he comes from, the place that is the future of the Church. He is not Italian, Polish, European. His memories are not to do with WWII or the Cold War. He was a priest shaped by the secret war in Argentina, a war of Disappearance on a continent of nationalistic wars and revolutions. The work of liberation theologians like Oscar Romero inspired him in a way that Benedict XVI could not have imagined. The differences aren’t huge but they are there. His priorities are not First World, his personality and out-spokenness breaks with the restraint and hedged diplomacies of a European papacy.
The unchanging, ever-changing life of the Church. Checks and balances, yes, but also renewal, upheaval, the unexpectedness of the Holy Spirit at work.