THE BLOG

The Positive Pope: Ancient Values and Modern Communication

26/02/2014 15:18 GMT | Updated 28/04/2014 10:59 BST

Scotland weren't the only Brits celebrating in Rome last Saturday. Whilst the Tartan Army was scoring points at the Rugby, people from all parts of the UK were at the Vatican watching Pope Francis elevate the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, to the College of Cardinals and I was proud to be there too as part of the UK's official delegation.

It has been said that Pope Francis' choice for his first batch of cardinals reflects the direction he is leading the Catholic Church. Many of the 19 new cardinals represent parts of the world whose peoples are suffering and have felt ignored until now. Whilst others, like Cardinal Vincent who heads the Catholic Church here in England and Wales, represent the big modern metropolises where diversity is embraced and adapting to change is recognised as a necessary part of survival. And just to reinforce how important that is to this Pope, after handing out scarlet birettas to the four Vatican-based cardinals, he elevated Cardinal Vincent first amongst the 15 who came from around the world.

All his Papal messages are delivered through powerful and symbolic images that require no translation. They are positively inspirational for those on the receiving end and the rest of us watching. I am not Catholic (nor active in practicing any religion) but as I watched the Consistory ceremony and Cardinal Vincent be appointed it felt to me that the Pope was also honouring our country and our work in recent years to help all people feel accepted for who they are. It's easy to imagine him saying - because of what he has shown us about himself so far - that the UK is a beacon of hope to those who do not enjoy equality, even if some changes we've made to make that possible are not ones the Church itself would adopt. This Pope makes people feel good about themselves even if he disagrees with us and we really like him because of that. He's Pope Positive. And that comes across even during a sombre ceremony.

Lord Patten, who was responsible for the very successful visit of Pope Benedict to the United Kingdom in 2010, joined me in the official delegation. We, of course, were customarily British in our behaviour whilst in the Basilica. Politely positive. When waiting to greet His Holiness a Vatican Usher made us both laugh with a one-word question as we tried to form an orderly queue: "British?" Other nations were less reserved - of course - and who couldn't smile when the Chileans cheered their man as he stepped down from the altar and when the new Argentinian Cardinal thrust his Papal scroll at the official delegations like he'd just scored a goal?

As all the Cardinals greeted and kissed each other I was silently imploring one of Cardinal Vincent's new colleagues to help him fix his skull cap which had slipped down the back of his head and could be seen peeping cheekily beneath his biretta. I had been told the Pope was instructing his senior team to focus only on the things that matter so maybe that explained why this unruly piece of red satin bothering me clearly wasn't him. No doubt the Pope intended his 'focus on what matters' message to extend beyond headgear, but it had also not been lost on Cardinal Cormac - Vincent Nichols' predecessor at Westminster. The night before the Consistory he conducted a special mass in honour of his successor without wearing his skull cap, explaining only at the end of the service that it was because he had managed to lose it on his way there.

I had various conversations with senior representatives of the Catholic Church about the new Pope's extraordinary gift for communication over the weekend. I was keen to know how he was talking to them about what he was trying to achieve and what he wanted them to do. They were unanimous in response: his choice of language was simple; he paints vivid pictures with it (imagery again); and it feels fresh even when he demanded they get smelly. His now infamous clarion call that priests should be 'shepherds who smell like their sheep' was quoted by all.

But his own actions were his strongest message to his team and, fundamentally, this is being interpreted by them to concentrate on promoting the purpose of their faith not the institution to which they belong. If they do the job right, everything else will look after itself.

I didn't meet anyone from the Catholic hierarchy who took exception to this, but I was intrigued to hear some ask how the Pope is perceived in academic circles.

Translating the complex into something that others can understand and respond to is not easy but it is the only way to make change happen. Academics do not always appreciate simplicity, and they don't always spot that opponents encourage complexity for the reasons that are obvious to the rest of us. I hope the institution Pope Francis leads will not try to complicate the simplicity of his communication. From what I've learned in the last few days the only change he wants to make is to how the Church operates, not why it exists, so no-one who loves the Church should have anything to fear.

The key thing here is that all important institutions face the same ongoing challenge, whether large, small, national, international, ancient and not so ancient: remaining relevant in a modern, changing world. For now at least, the Catholic Church is one of the best places to look if you want to learn how it could be done.