Francis factor blows away Vatican cobwebs

Francis factor blows away Vatican cobwebs
Pope Francis waves at St.Peter's square in the Vatican at the end of his weekly general audience on March 5, 2014.

VATICAN CITY - In his first year, Pope Francis has blown a breath of fresh air through the Catholic Church that has been felt across the globe.

Contrary to the way he is frequently depicted, the first pope from the southern hemisphere is no revolutionary in terms of doctrine.

But there is no doubt that he has shaken up the way things are done at the head of the Church, triggering concern, reticence and even a degree of opposition within the Vatican establishment.

Elected exactly a year ago on Thursday, Francis quickly developed a rapport with the faithful far beyond the confines of the Holy See.

Now 77, he has also appealed to many non-Catholics with his common touch, his grace and ease with ordinary people and his emphasis on the Church serving the interests of the world's poor.

Partly as a result, the expectations vested in him have been huge.

Twelve months after he accepted his election with the words "I am a great sinner," the Church has not been transformed, no rules have been abolished and the rituals at St Peter's continue to follow their timeless rhythm.

But in terms of style, a lot has changed.

Naturally spontaneous, Francis speaks easily, gives interviews and says what he thinks and, in turn, he is credited with encouraging a new spirit of open debate across the 1.2 billion-strong Church.

People like, and seem convinced by, his projection of the image of the pope as an ordinary man.

He has been described variously as a Marxist, pro-gay, a supporter of women priests and allowing the clergy to marry: none of them with any real basis.

A theme this pope returns to repeatedly is that of mercy, which has had profound implications for the way issues such as homosexuality, divorce and abortion are addressed, even if there has been no change in Church teaching on any of them.

Francis's message seems to be, "avoid judging and condemning others". He has been severe in his criticism of what he calls "armchair bishops" and careerism within the clergy, reminding priests that they should be close enough to their flocks to take on "the smell of their sheep".

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