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Substance And Style: How The Reforms Of Pope Francis Are Changing The Catholic Church

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When Pope Francis posed his now-iconic question, "Who am I to judge?" in reference to gay people in the Catholic Church, he signaled a sea change in a deeply conservative religious institution reeling from decades of scandal and decline in Europe and the Americas.

The pope’s insistence on simple living, his radical statements about economic injustice, and the arresting photos of him embracing others have effectively transcended religion, at once reflecting and furthering what his champions celebrate as progressive social change.

But beneath the Pope's headline-catching rhetoric, he has delivered key administrative decisions over the past year that indicate serious and substantial reforms are already underway within the Catholic church.

In an unprecedented move soon after his election, Francis appointed eight cardinals from around the globe to sit on a permanent advisory panel. This group, which is about to meet for the third time, aids Francis in his efforts to "shake-up" the bureaucracy in the Vatican. The panel will also be responsible for creating guidelines on how to address the church's global priest sex abuse scandal, namely how to handle clergy who have been accused of abuse and how to prevent it.

Francis has also replaced the widely criticized Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, whose tenure under Pope Benedict XVI was marked by a "Vatileaks" scandal that exposed alleged corruption, with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

Additionally, he has targeted the scandal-prone and notoriously secretive Vatican Bank: He appointed a commission to investigate how it operates, hired secular financial firms to do a third-party investigation of its practices, and recently replaced almost all of the cardinals on its advisory council with a new group to oversee much-needed reforms.

Perhaps the pope’s most significant decision to date was his choice of 19 Catholic leaders slated to become the newest class of cardinals. Nine out of the 16 new cardinals who are eligible to vote for the next pope are from the global south and Asia -- including some of the poorest countries in the world such as Haiti and Burkina Faso -- and five are from Latin America.

By shifting power away from Italy and Europe, the pope is developing a hierarchy that more accurately represents the realities of the worldwide Catholic Church.

As part of that global effort, Francis has also made key changes across Europe and the U.S. In Germany, he moved swiftly to remove Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, dubbed "Bishop Bling," after it was revealed that he spent $42.7 million on a new residence and renovations. And in what was seen in the United States as a sign of Francis’ desire for a more welcoming church, the pope replaced the American arch-conservative Cardinal Raymond L. Burke from the powerful Congregation of Bishops, which oversees bishop selection around the world, with the more moderate Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

In a similar gesture, during two huge Catholic Feast of the Holy Family celebrations at the end of 2013 in Spain -- one in Madrid with Cardinal Rouco Varela, and another in Barcelona with Cardinal Lluís M. Sistach -- Francis sent his representative to only the Barcelona celebration. Spaniards saw this as a sign that Francis was distancing himself from the ultra-conservative Varela, who is retiring soon as the head of the Spanish Catholic Church. His replacement is anticipated to be a major test of whether the Spanish church will see real change under the pope.

In the United Kingdom, Francis appointed Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster to the Congregation for Bishops, demonstrating his much talked about preference for Catholic leaders who are pastors, rather than princes or bureaucrats. Nichols is renowned for his reputation as a caring pastor and is one of the few Europeans who will be elevated to cardinal next month.

The pope’s statements on equality for gay people have even factored into the political rhetoric in the U.S., where Catholic lawmakers who voted in favor of a same-sex marriage bill in Illinois quoted his powerful phrase, "Who am I to judge?" U.S. President Barack Obama also quoted Francis in a policy speech in December about income inequality and poverty. Likewise, centrist and left-of-center politicians in Italy seeking immigration reform have referenced the pope's strong statements about caring for immigrants in their speeches.

Yet for Catholics in other areas of the world, in communities that are restricted by social isolation, oppressive laws or the rise of radical Islam, Francis has not yet left a mark.

In Youhanabad, an enclave of 100,000 Christians outside Lahore, Pakistan, priests at St. John's Catholic Church are praying that Francis will visit their community, one of the largest concentrations of Christians in the nation.

If Francis took his positive outreach on the road to this Muslim nation, residents say, his message could give people a better impression of Christians -- just 2 percent of the nation's population -- who regularly face discrimination and are often pushed to the lower rung of the economic ladder because of their faith.

"When Pope John Paul II visited in 1981, it made a difference among the people," said Father Francis Gulzar, the senior priest at St. John's, a parish that tends to most of the 3,000 Catholic families in Youhanabad.

Community members are holding out hope based on Francis' plans to visit Amman, Jerusalem and Bethlehem in May and the tone of his speeches. "So many Christians in the world are suffering," he said during his weekly speech in September after a deadly Taliban-linked bombing shattered a church in northwest Pakistan. "Am I indifferent to that, or does it affect me like it's a member of the family?"

Church members also say Francis has yet to do enough to address the church's sex abuse scandals, the greatest strain on the Catholic Church.

During a United Nations committee hearing in Geneva last week, the Vatican was accused of protecting priests and bishops and obstructing local investigations in the wake of sex abuse accusations. It also recently refused an extradition request from Poland for Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who is under investigation for sex abuse that allegedly occurred when he served in The Dominican Republic. The U.S. based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) criticized the pope for appointing Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller as one of its new cardinals, saying he has a "dreadful" record on children's safety. It also lamented the omission of Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has been an outspoken critic of the church's handling of sex abuse scandals around the world.

Francis has also thus far fallen short on reforms to the Catholic Church's social teachings. There is no indication, despite his verbal embrace of gay people and his declaration that the church has become too "obsessed" with gay people and abortion, that any doctrinal changes are underway regarding the church's approach to homosexuality, same-sex marriage or gay adoption. Francis has likewise been clear that there will be not be any female priests under his watch.

The most convincing evidence of change under Francis can ultimately be found in the way his warm presence, statements and leadership have ignited the spirits of Catholics around the world. In one pertinent example, Francis visited an abandoned Catholic Church occupied by homeless families in a troubled section of Rome at the beginning of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas.

"That visit brought light and sparkle to our lives," said Don Marco Ridolfo, a young parish priest with a gentle smile and bright eyes. "I can’t reveal personal details, the only thing I can say is that, beyond the emotions of the moment, there have been changes in the most intimate places, intentions became realities, realities of life."

"Some wiped out their sense of shame or resignation, and after many years entered the confessional," he continued. "Others simply asked to have a chat arm in arm, walking around the parish. And there are those who, after a long time, were finally able to ask for help."

Jaweed Kaleem contributed reporting from Lahore, Pakistan, Jessica Elgot from London, and Giulia Belardelli from Rome.

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