Four challenges to Francis' vision of a 'poor church for the poor'

Just in case anybody missed the key line from his homily during Tuesday's inaugural Mass, Pope Francis later made it his third tweet since taking office: "True power is service. The Pope must serve all people, especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable." The line builds on a consistent theme since Francis' election, memorably expressed during a meeting with journalists on Saturday, writes John Allen in NCR Online.

Now that the new pope has reached the end of his beginning, the focus will shift from style to substance, meaning the hard work of translating his promising start into the nuts and bolts of policy. With regard to fostering a "poor church for the poor," Francis will face at least four challenges right out of the gate.

1. The myth and reality of Vatican wealth

Given the magnificence of St. Peter's Basilica and the Apostolic Palace, the Vatican may seem a counterintuitive place to pursue the dream of a poor church. Some may expect the new pope to hold a fire sale in St. Peter's Square -- in a metaphorical sense following his namesake, Francis of Assisi, by stripping the place naked before starting anew.

Such a program is, in truth, easier to applaud than to accomplish.

To begin with, the legendary wealth of the Vatican is to some extent more myth than reality. The Vatican has an annual operating budget of under $300 million, while Harvard University, arguably the Vatican of elite secular opinion, has a budget of $3.7 billion, meaning it's 10 times greater. The Vatican's "patrimony," what other institutions would call an endowment, is around $1 billion. In this case, Harvard's ahead by a robust factor of 30, with an endowment of $30.7 billion.

The Vatican bank controls assets estimated at more than $6 billion, which is nobody's idea of chump change, but most of that isn't the Vatican's money. It belongs to religious orders, dioceses, movements and other Catholic organizations, and is managed by the Institute for the Works of Religion to facilitate moving it around the world.

Of course, these figures don't include the value of masterpieces of Western art housed in the Vatican, such as Michelangelo's "Pietà." The Vatican considers itself custodians of these items, not their owners, and it's a matter of Vatican law that they can never be sold or borrowed against. As a result, they have no practical value and are listed on the Vatican books at a value of 1 euro each.

Aside from selling off the papal limo, which Pope Francis doesn't seem inclined to use, and baubles such as the crimson-lined mozetta, which he doesn't seem inclined to wear, it's hard to see immediately what he could jettison that would dramatically alter perceptions.

2. Financial transparency

If Francis is serious about preaching a "poor church" to the world, he'll be challenged to make sure the Vatican keeps its own nose clean with regard to money management. In the past, both distant and recent, it's an area where the Vatican sometimes has stumbled.

FULL STORY Challenges to Francis' vision of a 'poor church for the poor' (NCR)

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