As the world anticipates the new pope's vision, the most desired development will be a shift in message. The new pope is said to be a man of great humility and simplicity, confident in his role as church shepherd, and desirous of taking action to strengthen the faith of millions of Catholics around the world. As international media covered the papal conclave last week in Vatican City, the college of cardinals spent the passing hours in deep introspection as they attempted to decipher who should be next to assume the throne of Saint Peter — a position of monumental consequence dating back 2,000 years to the time of Christ. Many pilgrims who had gathered to witness the momentous occasion voiced their hopes for a papacy of renewed vision and action, especially in the aftermath of a decade spent fighting off scandal.
As white smoke poured out of the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel on only the second day of voting, it quickly became clear that a front runner had rapidly emerged. Argentinian cardinal Jorge Bergoglio arguably received a mandate from his fellow cardinals to embody the role of Christ in the church and usher in a period of reconciliation and repentance. But what does the world expect from the new holy father? And what would most benefit the image of the church to millions of believers around the globe?
It is no question the church became battered during the tenure of Pope Benedict the Sixteenth, both by the devastating effects of a continuing sexual abuse scandal and as a result of a growing distance between the Holy See and and those made to feel ostracized by their message. Both wounds were self-inflicted. Benedict routinely made statements about homosexuals viewed as exclusionary and inflammatory, once even suggesting homosexual men considering priesthood should not enter the seminary for further discernment. Homosexuals around the world expressed an increasing sense of bewilderment in response to a church not only determined to thwart any attempt at incorporating gay marriage, but also seemingly convinced that homosexuality is exclusively an orientation of choice. Furthering this sense of disillusionment was the Vatican's apparent belief that homosexuality leads to pedophilia.
At the same time the church became more embattled in defending itself, its tone was growing more and more exclusionary. There's little chance the 2,000 year old institution will amend church doctrine, as it was not designed as a political organization to fit the evolving needs of a changing society. Anyone assuming Pope Francis will alter certain church platforms on gay marriage or females becoming priests will be surely disappointed. But the change that many may be looking for first may be more fundamental than any specific change in Vatican policy.
There is a well known gospel passage in which a known tax-collector and sinner named Zacchaeus climbs a tree to witness Jesus passing through the town of Jericho. Jesus asked him to come down and told him that he wanted to join him for dinner, proclaiming that he, too, was a 'son of Abraham.'
The pope is the symbol of Christ in the world, the same Christ who dined with sinners and forgave adulterers. The first and most important thing Pope Francis could do to welcome those led astray by the church's tone is to change it. Although the Vatican may not understand homosexuality and may not agree with gay marriage, they cannot deny that all of God's children belong in the church, and that gays, too, are sons and daughters of Christ. Creating a dialogue is the first step.
In Argentina, Pope Francis actually advocated the idea of accepting civil unions, starting a discussion with fellow bishops. Although the same invocation may not be present in the coming years as Pope, the fact that he was willing to listen and consider many solutions stands in stark contrast to the tone of the past. The most fundamental message of Christ's ministry on earth was that god loves each human being, and God proved it by sacrificing his only son on a Roman cross. The church must reach back to its foundations and renew this message in order to bring all of its flock back to the table. No matter how much damage has been done, actions can make the difference in defining a new era of church inclusion.