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AT EASTER time, the papacy shows its most local and its most global sides. For Romans, spectacular Holy Week ceremonies such as the sorrowful procession led by the pope on Good Friday and the pre-Easter vigil (pictured) are a familiar way-station in the city’s life, just as every other Italian town has its own distinctive rituals at this season.

Pope Francis carries a candle at Easter vigil ceremonies in Rome

But one such ceremony has an audience far wider than Rome itself: the pope’s Paschal message, which is designed to give heart to Catholics all over the world. The message is followed by an international audience of hundreds of millions, and is addressed urbi et orbi, to the city and the world.

For any modern pope, balancing the office’s inherited Roman and Italian connections with its global ones is a challenge. Over two years, Francis has shifted the papacy away from entanglement with its Italian base and towards a more international profile. This is to be expected from an institution that is sometimes called the world’s largest NGO, with over 1 billion followers. Francis has appointed many new cardinals from the global South, so that Europeans now make up less than half the 125 prelates who are entitled to elect a new pontiff. The curia, the Vatican’s Italian-dominated administration, now accounts for 27% of voting cardinals, down from 35% a few years ago. An Australian cardinal, George Pell, has been put in charge of cleaning up the Vatican’s finances.

All that has changed the ethos that prevailed under Benedict XVI, the previous pope. Although Benedict was German, his curia seemed to sit very comfortably with the Italian governments headed by Silvio Berlusconi. Mr Berlusconi avidly talked up Italy’s Christian heritage, although he never claimed to be a paragon of ascetic virtue. His government and the Vatican co-operated both on domestic issues, for example by defending the presence of crucifixes in Italian classrooms, and on European ones, like persuading the European Union to make religious liberty an explicit aim of its external policy, notes Pasquale Annicchino, a religion scholar at the European University Institute.

Church-state connections are looser now. Neither the pope nor the Italian government wants the old cosiness to come back. Although a practising Catholic, Matteo Renzi, the 40-year-old prime minister, speaks for a younger and less clerically-minded generation of Italians. Born in Argentina to Italian parents, Francis certainly has a high profile among the Italian public, but he is less tied to the country’s power structures. Some saw this week’s appointment of an Italian old-timer, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, to the oversight of Catholic education as a sign that the former regime still has traction. But it may be more significant that he is losing his old job, which included responsibility for economic affairs.

More broadly, many feel that to keep up with global developments, the de-Italianisation of the Vatican will have to go a lot faster. Catholicism’s biggest numbers are in developing countries, where it faces huge challenges, whether from rival forms of Christianity such as Pentecostalism, or from Islam, which is projected in a new study by the Washington-based Pew Forum to catch up with Christianity’s share of the global population (about 30%) by 2050. Take sub-Saharan Africa, which by 2050 is predicted to have 1.9 billion inhabitants, up from 823m in 2010. Within that fast-growing pool of people, Pew says, both Christianity in its various forms and Islam will more than double their numbers by mid-century. Christianity will go from 517m people (63% of the total) to 1.1 billion (59% of the total), while Islam rises from 248m (30%) to 670m (35%).

As of now, there are just 15 voting cardinals from Africa. That may be too few to stay competitive in such a volatile religious marketplace. Then again, the church must also reserve space for other growing regions in the developing world, such as Latin America and east Asia. It is a daunting challenge for a millennia-old, tradition-bound institution, but unlike his predecessor Francis appears to be giving it his full attention.