Pope overhauls Catholic image but real reforms await

Pope Francis has turned around the way the Catholic Church is seen but his promise of Vatican reform awaits next year, observers said on Tuesday.

AFP| Updated: Dec 18, 2013, 00:49 AM IST

Vatican City: Pope Francis has turned around the way the Catholic Church is seen but his promise of Vatican reform awaits next year and key problems remain, observers said on Tuesday, as the pontiff celebrated his 77th birthday.

After years of stagnation and turbulence, the first ever Latin American pope has brought a down-to-earth style to the papacy and has shown a willingness to tackle issues like the Vatican`s secretive finances.

Francis has also established himself as a global voice on the side of the dispossessed with his critique of unfettered capitalism -- earning the label of "Marxist" from conservative commentators in the United States.

In the Vatican`s own sluggish view of time, he has moved quickly in his first months, installing a council of cardinals to advise him and calling for a less "Vatican-centric" Church with more power for bishops.

He has accumulated 10 million followers on Twitter under the @pontifex handle, nearing rock star popularity, and has been named "Person of the Year" by Time and the US gay rights magazine The Advocate.

"He puts himself at the level of ordinary people without formalism and without barriers," said Marco Politi, a Vatican expert and author of biographies of the two previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The change of mood has been all the more remarkable given the strife in the Church before his election in March, including outrage over child sex abuse scandals and divisions between the Vatican and local churches.

Those issues have hardly gone away, however.

Analysts warn that progressives in the Church and its many critics who have hoped for a raft of reforms of Catholic teachings will be disappointed.

Francis remains a moral conservative, although a compassionate one, who is virtually certain to stick to doctrine on hot-button issues like abortion and contraception, or priestly celibacy and women priests.

Even the pope`s widely-praised comment about gay people -- "Who am I to judge?" -- is seen as showing a new tolerance but is unlikely to alter the Church`s fundamental condemnation of homosexual acts as a sin.