Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Surprise was the reaction in Rome on hearing of the elevation of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, to the Papacy. My colleagues in Rome told me that the Plaza was unusually quiet as the people tried to figure out what was going on.  I guess the Cardinals showed that they elect the pope on their own terms, and now everyone is wondering who Pope Francis is, how he will lead, and what will characterize his pontificate.

Intra and Extra: Challenges for the Pope in the Church and the World

The Pope’s main role is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In his first homily as Holy Father he asserted just this. “We can walk as much as we want,” he said  “we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a compassionate NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ.”  He also has a Church to govern—and he’ll face serious challenges on both fronts.  On the inside, the Church continues to reel from scandals and abuse. The curia needs to be reformed and the bureaucracy cleaned up. On the outside, Pope Francis faces a growing and hostile secularism, religious persecution from a number of fronts, dwindling number of believers in traditionally Catholic lands, including Latin America, and increasing ignorance of the basic tenets of Christianity. But there are also some real positives. The Church continues to grow in the Global South—especially in Africa and Asia. Belief is still high in Latin America, though many Catholics are leaving for the Pentecostals or evangelicals. Among U.S. Catholics, Hispanics are now the majority.  And while the Church in the West may be getting smaller, it is also more vibrant and serious. Younger Catholics are orthodox and evangelical, and dissenters like Hans Kung are aging and less influential each day. Pope Francis also has the advantage of following Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whose interpretation of Vatican II and whose intellectual and spiritual guidance set out a framework for the New Evangelization.

Francis brings several important things to his papacy. The most obvious are that he is a Latin American, and not a member of the Roman Curia. The Curia needs reform, and being an outsider with experience of diocesan dysfunction will serve him well. Further, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he not only dealt with extreme poverty, corruption, lack of rule of law, and social and economic volatility that is common in the developing world, he also has had to contend with virulent and aggressive secularism that is common in the West.  He has been a fearless defender of human life and family, has called abortion the “death penalty for the unborn,” and has been unafraid to clash with political leaders over corruption, reminding them that social corruption is rooted in personal sin.

He also brings a long record of engagement with the poorest of the poor. Yet he focuses on prayer and holiness, rather than politics as the means to bring about social change.  He has been critical of Marxist-inspired liberation theology and the dangers economic utopianism and political ideology. Whenever the Gospel becomes politicized the result is unbelief. Pope Francis knows that it is faith and personal holiness that will ultimately be the catalyst for change and he has modeled this in his own simple life.   Politics reveals the spiritual condition of a nation and the answer to political and social upheaval cannot be politics alone. Political change must begin with personal change and with cultural renewal, which means a revitalization of the cultus—that is the religious and prayer life of a people.  As he said in 2002, “To those who are now promising to fix all your problems, I say, ‘Go and fix yourself.’ . . . Have a change of heart. Get to confession, before you need it even more! The current crisis will not be improved by magicians from outside the country and nor will [improvement] come from the golden mouth of our politicians, so accustomed to making incredible promises.”

The Emerging Global South

The Cardinals did not choose Francis simply because of geography. They wanted a man who could lead the Church and meet the challenges of the time. Nevertheless, the fact that he is from Latin America is significant because over 40% of Catholics live in Latin America and it is in the global south that Catholicism is experiencing the most growth.  He also understands firsthand the challenges of populism, corruption, and the reality of extreme poverty.  It will be interesting to see how he will be received in Latin America and the developing world.

The Significance of Francis

When his name was first announced people wondered whether he took the name after the great Francis of Assisi who was known for his holiness, poverty, and solidarity with the poor or perhaps after the great Jesuit, St. Francis Xavier.  It has become clear that St. Francis of Assisi is his inspiration. St. Francis was called to rebuild the Church and he did so by a life of holiness, simplicity, and proximity to the poor. The greatest tool for conversion is personal holiness, and people were drawn to St. Francis for his authenticity in living out the Gospel.  Nevertheless, since he is a Jesuit, and in light of the New Evangelization, perhaps St. Francis Xavier, the great evangelist to Asia and India is in the back of his mind as well.

Rooted in Prayer

If the first moments of his pontificate are any indication of the direction of his pontificate—it will be centered on prayer. After looking out on the people, perhaps taking in the momentous task set before him, he asked the world to pray for Benedict XVI and led Rome and the world in prayer. Then he knelt as he asked the people to pray for him, and the crowd became silent. It was quite impressive to watch the crowd become immediately silent.  We live in a world that is too fast for prayer and has too many distractions for silence. It was notable how Pope Francis, before giving the traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing, began with prayer and silence, two things the world desperately needs, and two things that are essential if we are to have flourishing human lives.

Steward of Faith

As the world learns more about Pope Francis and the vision for his pontificate, we’ll hear a lot about his views on marriage, abortion, and the family—and we’ll hear the same questions from the media that we always hear each time we get a new pope: Women priests, abortion, homosexual marriage, contraception: Will the new pope change Church teaching?  Simply, no. The pope is Catholic. These teachings are not based on fashion or politics, they are rooted in 2000 years of theological reflection and he is the steward of the deposit of faith.  One theme we hear is how the Church “bans” this or that, or how it is opposed to equality or choice. But this misses the point. The Church does not simply “ban” things—its moral teaching is rooted in a robust, and positive view of society, the family and the person created in the image of God called to friendship with Christ, human flourishing, and an eternal destiny. I look forward to seeing how Pope Francis communicates these truths to the world.

For more on Pope Francis I recommend Sandro Magister’s profile from 2002 and Fr. Z’s blog has several posts including this one.