As we have seen in recent posts here, Pope Francis was chosen with the idea that there would be a break with the past. In naming Cardinal Bergoglio, an outsider and the first pope not from Europe, the cardinals were looking for someone who could begin the process of changing the ways of Church politics.
Since I began writing about the pope in August, a fair number of people have asked me to explain a bit more about the assertion that the cardinals were seeking a change agent in the new pontiff. Of course, I am not an expert in religion or in Church politics; as such, much of what I write on these matters is a (hopefully intelligent and critical) reading of the news, particularly newspapers and television reports in Spanish, English and Italian.
Nonetheless, even an outsider such as myself can read the signs, which all point to a desire for change.
Naming Cardinal Bergoglio was in many ways a radical move and a surprising one that represented several “firsts’. When the Archbishop of Buenos Aires was selected, he became the first non-European pope in more than 1,000 years. What’s more, he is the first to come from the New World, most specifically from Latin America, which is home to a majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Perhaps even more significant than the new pope’s national origin is his spiritual origin. He is the first pope who comes from the Jesuits, the order renowned for having produced some of the most intellectually profound, and often free-thinking, religious thinkers over the centuries. In recent times and particularly in Latin America, the Jesuits have had significant influence in the development of “liberation theology”, a movement which has been highly controversial in the Catholic theological community and even condemned by Pope John Paul II on several fundamental aspects.
Archbishop Bergoglio moved further in symbolizing the concept of change by choosing the name Francis. Even this straightforward act can be seen as a significant departure from the past. No pope had ever before taken the name of the exceptional saint of the poor, Francis of Assisi, who was himself a beggar in 13th century Italy. This name is widely seen as a sign of humility, in sharp contrast with the images of pomp and grandeur that have characterized the modern papacy.
The cardinals knew that in the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires they were getting a truly humble man, one who had chosen to move out of his palatial residence to live in a spartan apartment. Cardinal Bergoglio was indeed a rarity among the Church’s upper echelons, a simple man who gave up his chauffeur-driven car and took the bus to work, surrounded by his people. In Argentina, he was well known as the bishop who cooked his own meals and washed his own dishes.
And, on the March day when the new pope stepped out on to the balcony of his residence, a dramatic change of style became evident to the world. Gone were the triumphant double-handed salutes of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Instead, Pope Francis walked out timidly, dressed in plain white, wearing a simple cross. He made an unassuming gesture to the crowd in St Peter’s Square, and then he just stood and looked.
Tradition has it that the pope offers the city and the world a blessing. But before doing so, Francis stood before the people and said, “I need to ask you a favor.” He asked that, even before he blessed them, the people should pray for him, in silence. And he bowed his head and shoulders before the crowd to receive their prayer.
This was a moment replete with symbolism, a moment of calm and simplicity, a contrast to the pompousness and grandeur to which papal followers had become accustomed. It was an unusual gesture of humility, a pope asking the masses for their help, setting himself up not as a grandiose or infallible dignitary, but as a servant of the people.
It was indeed remarkable that, in a matter of minutes, Pope Francis had already demonstrated that things were going to be different.
Still, the truly great challenges lie ahead, as the new leader seeks to implement and sustain fundamental change. In his personal behavior, Francis has clearly signaled that he will preside with a style unlike those who have gone before him. Now, he must endeavor to walk a fine line between the desire for change and the need to keep continuity with the Church’s illustrious past. He must continue to lead by example, to embody the story of change, and perhaps above all else, to make this story of change a story that engages those around him in a shared quest.
Next time: a few thoughts on how he can accomplish this mission.