Pope Francis has barely taken on responsibility as head of the Catholic Church when he has made headlines, creating hope for greater focus on faith and compassion, the main aspects of eternal and everyday issues. He has said he wants a ‘poor Church for the poor’. That is, indeed, worthy of the first Pope from a developing country, notably Argentina in South America. Will he succeed?

The Pope is not likely to make the Catholic Church poor. It is far too wealthy to make many significant changes soon. And even the leaders of faith know that power and independence have quite a bit to do with money and wealth.

Sometimes, the Catholic Church pays it ways to get goodwill, or to get out of badwill. And access to own money makes it possible to implement activities without asking anyone beforehand; it gives room for secret missions and operations.

In recent decades and years, compensations have been paid to victims of sexual abuse, indeed child abuse, and, I suppose, sometimes money has been paid to silence victims and make prosecutors turn a blind eye. And then, on the other hand, the priests, sisters, deacons and other workers in the Catholic Church are not paid properly, and some have even given oath promising they will live in poverty, not even keeping a bank account or much cash at all. Some of the fine monks and nuns live like that.

They have free accommodation, food and healthcare, but little else. Obviously, it is an outdated lifestyle and a form of bondage. The Pope could begin looking at this part of his organisation. Priests and sisters should be paid proper salaries. That would give them more independence, too, in their job and calling, even to leave and join another employer. 

Secondly, the Pope should consider the celibacy issue and allow priests and sisters to marry, if they so wish. The Salvation Army, a British Christian organisation founded in 1865 (and reorganised in 1878), working for the poor, earlier only allowed marriage within the organisation and at the same rank.

Perhaps, that is a gradual way to go for the Catholic Church? Or, it could set up affiliated organisations, where celibacy would not be required and, indeed, where women could have the same authority as men. Since Pope Francis is said to be a moderate, this may be a way he will choose.

I remember, almost 50 years ago, that my uncle had to resign from his post as a preacher in the Salvation Army in Norway because he wanted to marry a woman, who was not working in the organisation. Uncle Peder resigned and became a social worker in Stavanger municipality instead. That was the right thing to do that time. Today, the organisation has modernised and there is no issue about who the staff members marry.

It should be noted that the Pope is the head only of the Catholic Church, with about half of the world’s well over two billion Christians; he is not the head of the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe and not the Protestant Church with hundreds of subgroups. Yet, all Christians listen to the Pope as a spiritual leader, but would many times see him as far too conservative for our modern world.

Furthermore, the Pope enjoys respect outside Christianity, perhaps especially among Muslims. This time, when an Argentinean Cardinal has been elected Pope, it should be noted that he comes from the least Muslim continent, notably South America. Hence, he, probably, has limited firsthand knowledge of Islam. We often say that the Pope should reach out to other religions and that is true, but leaders of other religions must also reach out to the Pope and other Christian leaders.

If there is strife between religions, it is usually not the ordinary believers who cause it, but their leaders. There is need for dialogue between groups within each religion and there is need for dialogue between religions. I am of the opinion that modernisation and renewal of a religion or denomination will come from within. New understanding of God’s message through the scriptures must be found and debated within each religion and then they can reach out to others.

It is essential that religious leaders and believers realise what the essential cornerstones of the faith are, and distinguish them from organisation and administration within a church or a mosque. Often, the outwardly aspects are overemphasised and they become hindrances for people’s access to God.

Traditions and arrangements should, indeed, change overtime so that they can become in sync with the time we live in. The administrative rule of celibacy in the Catholic Church, for example, is not a dogma, it is a discipline, and any Pope who wishes to change it can do so.

All of us, in all religions, have clear opinions on ceremonial and administrative issues. The way we bow our heads in prayer follows certain traditions. The ways preachers are dressed vary; the roles of women in the various faiths vary; the ways children are taught about God vary; and so on. How we use language also vary and what language that we use.

When changes are introduced, we always have long debates. But we should note that these are practical issues and not really religious ones. And I need to remind myself that I too, now when I am getting on in life, have to flow with the tide and accept changes: maybe a sermon on YouTube, or a hymn or sura on the social media is as good as if I read it from the Holy Book? Maybe CD versions of the scriptures can be listened in the car or the mobile phone without becoming less sacred?

Pope Francis’ emphasis on the poor and needy is as basic as faith is in all religions, and it is as obvious to highlight it in Christianity as in Islam. One verse from the Bible’s Old Testament reads: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for the Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God” (Proverbs 14:31).

And in the New Testament, Jesus again and again spoke about the concern we should have for those who need our help and protection. We should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those who are in prison, give shelter to the homeless, and so on. And then, we should preach the gospel, knowing that all must repent and seek God’s forgiveness, peace and mercy. Islam teaches the same.

We all welcome the Pope’s emphasis on focusing on the poor, reminding us all of the need for social justice, especially at this particular time when inequality is growing in many countries amidst economic growth, too. New groups get out of poverty in China, India and elsewhere, while others at the bottom become even poorer and no proper social net is in place.

In the West, hard-fought social and economic rights for the working class are under threat, and in some countries, middle-class people fall back into poverty due to governments’ economic austerity.

Pope Francis’ sermons reminding us of the need for greater social justice must be followed up by political solutions, implemented by political parties, labour unions and other democratic organisations. Otherwise, they will just remain words from a prelate, moral norms and wishful thinking.

Looking around us, we see that believers, too, accept huge differences between people in wealth and power, within and between countries. Globalisation is en vogue, and our focus on money and success seems to be greater than ever.

Social justice has broader dimensions than merely the economic ones. Today, we mark the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination. On March 8, we marked the International Women’s Day. On the Pope’s home continent, there is still a long way to go as for equality for the indigenous peoples and for the people of African and mixed heritage. In Europe, North America, Africa, Asia and Oceania, too, we need to rid ourselves of direct and indirect racial discrimination. In Pakistan also, we have to consider discrimination based on creed and colour.

All over the world, we must consider the importance of religious freedom and equality. We should thank God for our faith, and we should have respect for all other believers, and even non-believers, as Pope Francis mentioned in one of his sermons.

And then, as we hope that Pope Francis will succeed in his job and that all other religious leaders succeed in their jobs, we also pray that we will be able to see God and understand his or her will better. We must work for tolerance, peace and social justice - in the spirit of St Francis of Assisi, the 12th century saint, whose name Pope Francis has borrowed as a symbol and inspiration.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.  Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com­