Pope overhauls Catholic image but real reforms await

Pope Francis has turned around the way the Catholic Church is seen but his promise of Vatican reform awaits next year and key problems remain, observers said on Tuesday, as the pontiff celebrated his 77th birthday.

After years of stagnation and turbulence, the first ever Latin American pope has brought a down-to-earth style to the papacy and has shown a willingness to tackle issues like the Vatican's secretive finances.

Francis has also established himself as a global voice on the side of the dispossessed with his critique of unfettered capitalism -- earning the label of "Marxist" from conservative commentators in the United States.

In the Vatican's own sluggish view of time, he has moved quickly in his first months, installing a council of cardinals to advise him and calling for a less "Vatican-centric" Church with more power for bishops.

He has accumulated 10 million followers on Twitter under the @pontifex handle, nearing rock star popularity, and has been named "Person of the Year" by Time and the US gay rights magazine The Advocate.

"He puts himself at the level of ordinary people without formalism and without barriers," said Marco Politi, a Vatican expert and author of biographies of the two previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The change of mood has been all the more remarkable given the strife in the Church before his election in March, including outrage over child sex abuse scandals and divisions between the Vatican and local churches.

Those issues have hardly gone away, however.

Analysts warn that progressives in the Church and its many critics who have hoped for a raft of reforms of Catholic teachings will be disappointed.

Francis remains a moral conservative, although a compassionate one, who is virtually certain to stick to doctrine on hot-button issues like abortion and contraception, or priestly celibacy and women priests.

Even the pope's widely-praised comment about gay people -- "Who am I to judge?" -- is seen as showing a new tolerance but is unlikely to alter the Church's fundamental condemnation of homosexual acts as a sin.

"Exaggerated expectations will necessarily lead to new disappointments," German cardinal Walter Kasper was quoted as saying in a new biography of the pope by Rome-based Argentine journalist Elisabetta Pique.

"The new pope can renew the Church but he cannot invent a new Church," Kasper said, adding that progressives and conservatives alike would be "disappointed".

Tackling Vatican finances, abuses

Francis has begun consultations on reforming the Vatican administration and the Vatican's scandal-tainted bank, the Institute for Works of Religion, and has set up a committee on child abuse.

On the issue of abuses and cover-ups by Catholic clergymen dating back decades, which continues to anger many Catholics and non-Catholics alike, two events next month could give an indication of the pope's direction.

One will be the assembly on January 8 of the Legion of Christ, a troubled conservative religious order whose late founder Father Marcial Maciel was discovered to be a sexual predator and which has been placed under Vatican tutelage as more abuse cases have emerged.

Then on January 16, the Vatican will send representatives to Geneva to testify at a meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child over its handling of abuse cases after saying it was not legally competent over the actions of clergymen.

Some experts believe Pope Francis may be trying to do too much and creating confusion among ordinary Catholics with multiple interviews and ad lib speeches.

"Pilot and navigator, accelerator and brake: Pope Bergoglio's driving is like that," said Vatican expert Sandro Magister, using Francis's surname from birth.

He added that the pontiff's style had led to "misunderstandings and over-the-top expectations".

And while his public image is that of a kindly parish priest, the Vatican gossip is that he can sometimes be brusque and authoritarian behind the walls.

With the new pope's popularity recently growing among many non-Catholics as well, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has expressed concern that the attention on his person could overshadow his actual message.

Delivering his Christmas greetings to the Vatican press corps, Lombardi said: "Many of us are fascinated by this extraordinary personality but the pope wants people not to look at him but to look at Jesus".