The first thing you notice about St Monica’s Priory is its symmetry. An arched door bedecked by columns on both sides sits directly below an imposing leaded window, which is presided over by a centred bell tower.
On a crisp March Sunday morning the congregation are milling in for a busy 11am Mass and settling into wooden pews that are bathed in sunlight refracted through stained glass.
There are about 150 people present at this Catholic church in Hoxton Square, the majority of whom are of African descent. It is only three days since Pope Benedict XVI stepped down after an eight-year papacy and barely a week since Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned amid claims that he acted inappropriately towards fellow priests. It’s certainly a time of upheaval for the 2,000-year-old church.
However, Father Mark Minihane, one of two priests at St Monica’s, makes no reference to recent events during his sermon on this Sunday – an omission recommended by the Vatican to its followers all over the world. Nevertheless, he expects curiosity about the current situation to grow over the coming days.
“As a clearer scenario is set, I believe more people will care about who our next pope is. So far, I’ve just had conversations with people who are really interested in the subject. I know as much as anybody – I can only go by what I read in the papers.”
In his office, a silver framed portrait of a gently beaming Pope Benedict still hangs on the peach walls but Father Mark hopes for some different qualities in the future pope.
“Benedict was very important for the Church and he is a brilliant theologian. But I’m hoping the next pope holds a council like in the sixties so we can address the problems of today.”
Father Mark is referring to the Second Vatican Council, opened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed by Pope Paul VI in 1965, which looked at relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world. It aimed to get rid of outdated practices, including ending the delivery of the Mass in Latin and simplifying the sacraments.
Today, however, the problems range from priests exploiting their position to abuse vulnerable children, particularly in the US and Ireland, to the recent resignation of the Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien because of his sexual misconduct towards fellow priests.
Pope Benedict’s handing over of the papacy is the culmination of one of the most crisis-riven periods in Roman Catholic history and there have been whispers that his decision was in part influenced by his inability to reform Catholicism on the world stage.
Practicing Catholic Lydia Symonds, 23, says that she has become disillusioned in recent years. “I used to attend church all the time but now I don’t because of everything that’s happened. My mum doesn’t go at all now because of the sex scandals.
“I still believe in God – it’s more to do with organised religion than beliefs. Catholicism itself is a good thing, but the Church has some explaining to do.”
Speaking about her local church, St Jude in Clapton Park, Lydia says: “It’s never really that busy and the community is not particularly large. Catholicism is in a dire place and I definitely think people have been affected.
“The Church needs to move forward – it can’t continue to be this way. I think there needs to be a younger pope – if you pick one as old as Benedict you can’t expect him to stay for the long term.”
It will be a tough call for whoever becomes the next pope, as Catholicism continues to face challenges in an increasingly secular age. Popularly cited as a possible candidate is Peter Turkson from Ghana. The 64-year-old would be the first African pope and he is seen as a moderate; for example, he advocates the use of condoms where one partner is HIV positive.
Other names doing the rounds include the 71-year-old Angelo Scola, who is the most prominent of the Italian candidates, Marc Ouellet, 68, from Canada, and Christoph Schoenborn from Austria.
At St Jude, a fairly modest looking church with plain walls and simple decor, Father Neil Hannigan says that this is a crucial moment for Catholicism. “The next pope has a golden opportunity but I fear it will be missed.
“The deeper questions are about the failings of individuals. Power structures within the Church have allowed a lot of priests to behave in these ways. Things have become institutionalised and maybe we end up worshipping false gods as a result. “Christ would have rocked the Church to its foundations.”
Back at St. Monica’s, this concern with how Catholicism can remind people of its fundamental message in the 21st century is foremost in the minds of the congregation, as they speculate on the next pope.
Fatima Ndoye, 35, is from Nigeria. She says: “I will be happy if the next pope comes from Africa because the Church needs our energy to bring people back.
“We have a lot of singing to praise Jesus Christ and there are people who come for the singing and end up more fond of the message as a result. If he isn’t from Africa, it will still be okay – the most important thing is the message.”
According to Vatican figures, there are an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world at present, with more than 40 per cent of these living in Latin America. While there has been a significant decline in the number of people following the faith in Europe, in Africa numbers have surged.
Londoner Michael Harper, 26, is an African from Congo. He says: “I think people miss a kind of pilgrim pope, like John Paul II. I don’t think a pope makes all the difference – in the end all of them share the same message and that’s what really matters.
“But an icon like John Paul II certainly made more people think of the Church and then come to us. I guess having that again would be fine.”
Only time will tell what the legacy of the 266th pope will be, but Catholics in Hackney will be hoping for a return to the basic teachings of their Church and how these relate to their own lives.
“The Church has been through worse than this and it will survive,” says Father Hannigan. “Faith survives because of Christ and his teachings – that fact is often forgotten.”