Elected this week to lead the 1.2 billion strong Roman Catholic Church of the world, Pope Francis has a number of firsts to his credit. But, he also faces a number of challenges ahead.
He is the first Jesuit, the first Latin American, and the first non-European, in nearly 1300 years, to become a pope.
The last time someone from outside Europe led the Roman Catholic Church was in AD 741. That was when Pope Gregory III, born in Syria, ended his 10-year reign.
This new pope is also the first ‘Francis’. It is because Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina, who now became ‘Pope Francis,’ had chosen the name himself to honour the great St. Francis of Assisi.
And, by becoming the 266th pope-and-bishop-of-Rome, Pope Francis now holds that revered position of the successor of St. Peter, the original disciple of Jesus Christ.
The Church regards St. Peter as the first pope, because Christ had said to him ‘you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church’ a reference of which is found in the Bible at Mathew 16:18.
The challenges faced by Pope Francis would however be very different from those that St. Peter had faced over twenty centuries ago.
If it was then, the persecution of Christians by Roman authorities when the early church began, it is now, the massive onslaught of abuse-scandals and liberal-views.
It was this very pressure of great intensity that caused the earlier one, Pope Benedict XVI, to resign.
With the worldwide church grappling with controversial issues ranging from priests facing child sex-abuse accusations, to male prostitution, to black mail, the road ahead, for the new pope, seems very tough to traverse.
Catholic faith for long has refused accepting a pragmatic approach to modern behaviour. According to many new-age thinkers, the growing sex-abuse scandals and controversies are a result of impractically stringent rules set for priests and nuns, by the Roman Catholic Church, denying everyday realism by blind-folding itself in hypocritical spiritualism.
Outward display of humility while there is inward lack of purity in thought, and an outward garb of celibacy while there is an inward condoning of sexual practices have become a good target for the critics of the Church.
So, in these changing times, several questions need Vatican’s response. Should women be priests? Should priests marry? Should church allow birth control? Should church support gay rights?
Also with dwindling church attendance and with less and less people saying they are ‘strong Catholics’ today, what should the Church do? Can the Vatican come out with new solutions, without diluting the essence of Christ’s message as understood by the Catholic Church?
How should it get along with Jewish and Islamic belief systems? How should it effectively address the growing ‘secularism’? How should it handle the persecution of Christians, in some countries?
There are many such issues that Pope Francis must make decisions on. And the impact of his decisions could be very far-ranging. But will this humble man be capable enough, to withstand the perils of this top job?
Only time will tell if he will handle it efficiently.
Unlike Roman Catholics, the rest of the Christendom – Protestants and Orthodox – reject the leadership of pope, and his being infallible. But, the tremendous power that the position of pope holds on the organized church cannot be neglected as inconsequential.
The doctrinal differences, divisions, and factions have led to various fragments among non-Catholics, but they do not have the great common structure and worldwide order that the Catholics have.
Today Christians – together with Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox segments – with the common belief in a triune God account for 32% (2.2 billion) of the world’s population. Muslims make up 23% (1.6 billion) of the global population, according to the latest statistics from Pew research organization. And leading huge masses can be extremely stressful for aged religious leaders.
I only hope that Pope Francis would not bend under pressure and give in his resignation too, like Pope Benedict.
Then, who knows, we might have three popes alive at one time!