The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the western world, and with more than one billion members worldwide, it is the largest Christian church. Its history spans almost 2,000 years and is rooted in the Church's Canon of Scripture and Tradition. At the head of the church is the Pope, who Catholics believe is the successor to Saint Peter whom Christ appointed as the first head of His church. The Pope, according to the religion's doctrine, can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals. The Catholic Church practises closed communion and only baptised members of the church are permitted to receive the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
Pope Francis faces daunting task to restore faith in Catholic Church
Kevin Rafferty says the apparent common touch of Pope Francis is an encouraging sign but he faces a huge task to restore faith in his church
Francis, Bishop of Rome, lately known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, looked stunned when he made his appearance on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica as the first pope from Latin America or from a developing country. He did not wave his arms in triumph as Benedict XVI had done eight years ago, but just said "Good evening".
Before giving his first blessing as pope, he asked the vast throng below him to pray for him, and then led them in the Lord's Prayer. That was a good start: the pope certainly needs the prayers of the people. I pray that he follows up by listening to the people and then communicating with them rather than pontificating, as too many of his predecessors did.
It is a good sign that he has chosen the name Francis, whether it is in recognition of Francis of Assisi, who gave up his worldly possessions to live a simple life, or of Francis Xavier, the Jesuit who brought Christianity to Asia. Francis is the first Jesuit to be pope, from the society of priests who undergo a rigorous 12 years of intellectual and religious training.
It is also an excellent sign that as archbishop, Francis lived in a modest apartment rather than the bishop's palace, cooked for himself and travelled by bus rather than in a chauffeur-driven car.
But Francis is 76. Are the cardinals taking a chance on an old man? Or will Pope Francis become a John XXIII, who was prepared to take a chance and open the Catholic Church to new ideas by calling the Second Vatican Council?
The crisis engulfing the church is multifold: as far as the world at large is concerned, the church is increasingly irrelevant; even for the 1.2 billion nominal Catholics, what the pope and bishops say is far removed from their daily experiences. Catholic bishops preach a strict sexual morality, including bans on sex outside marriage or use of contraception, but bishops across the world have covered up when their priests have been found guilty of the heinous crime and mortal sin of sexually abusing children.
Inside its Vatican heartland, the church is being torn apart by unholy scandals. Apart from the connivance at clerical abuse of children, they include questions about the Vatican bank's role in money laundering, and the alleged existence of a clandestine gay sex ring of priests and blackmailing of them.
It is a tough task to expect this man from a land far away, as Francis put it, to tackle the abuses of Curial power, when Benedict XVI, whose career was right at the stern centre of the Curia, failed.
One crucial problem is that the new pope and indeed all of his fellow cardinal electors were appointed either by Benedict or by his predecessor John Paul II, who both took a straight and narrow view of adherence to Catholic doctrine.
Francis has to decide whether to enforce the red lines marking obedience to the church or to try to risk creating a more inclusive church. As archbishop, he said: "If I had to choose between a wounded church that goes out on to the streets and a sick, withdrawn church, I would definitely choose the first one."
On troublesome sexual questions, Francis is orthodox, but seems to understand the plight of people living in a wounded world. Privately, he once joked that, "They want to stick the whole world inside a condom."
Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, the best-selling Catholic newspaper in English