Pope Francis, until a few minutes ago known to the world as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, is in several obvious ways a bold departure for the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics — as a Latin American, as the first Jesuit pope, and as the first, too, to take the name Francis — according to the Vatican, after St. Francis of Assisi.
Yet the new pontiff is in other ways a cautious choice — first, because at 76, he’s only two years younger than Benedict was when he was chosen in 2005, and while not exactly a ‘caretaker pope,’ is certainly a less risky choice than someone younger, who would have been expected to have a longer pontificate.
As an Argentinian, he’s of the New World, yes, but as the son of an Italian railway worker, he’s one with strong ties to the old.
And though no contender for the papacy was going to reopen questions of Catholic doctrine, it’s fair to say that Bergoglio is a particularly vocal traditionalist, for example coming out against adoption by gay couples as a form of discrimination against their children.
He’s been critical, too, of what he’s called the “unjust distribution of goods” in his country and in the wider world, and is seen as a strong voice for social justice.
“The bishop’s fidelity to the Gospel and his love for the spirit of poverty lead him to a special option in favor of the poor who are at the central core of the Good News of Jesus,” he said in 2007. “The bishop walks with them. Nowadays the war of the powerful against the weak has created an abyss between the rich and the poor. The poor are legion. Before an unjust economic system with strong structural inequalities, the situation of the marginalized is worse. Today substantial groups of people suffer hunger. The poor, the young and the refugees are victims of this ‘new order.’ Women in many places are looked down upon and are the object of a new hedonist culture.” To that, all I can say is, ‘Amen.’
But critiques of the excesses of capitalism are nothing new at the Vatican, of course, and Francis was also among those who argued against the closeness of Catholic liberation theologians to Marxists in the 70s.
Cardinal Bergoglio may also have been a less radical choice than some other options — Milan’s Cardinal Angelo Scola, for instance — in terms of institutional reform.
After years of embarrassing sexual abuse and financial scandals, anyone stepping into the role of pope knows sweeping administrative reform is not just hoped for but expected — to the point that even those inside the Curia who will fight hardest for the status quo publicly say they support reform. The new pope has also spoken of the need to clean house, recently saying, “We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church.”
But since Cardinal Bergoglio never worked inside the Vatican, he’s seen as less likely than some other candidates were to overhaul the way its government functions, the thinking being that to truly reform the Curia, it helps to know how it works.
Even Benedict, who came to the papacy with decades of experience inside the Vatican, tried to reform the place and fell short, ironically, according to those who know him, because the man known as “God’s Rottweiler” was too conflict-averse to upend it. (Censured theologians will disagree, I know.)
In choosing Francis, the cardinals chose to emphasize the importance of pastoral experience, and of sending a welcome message of humility — in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio took public transportation and cooked his own meals — and humanity.
In greeting the crowd in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, the new pope was downright colloquial, telling the crowd, “A presto!” — See you soon! — and humbly asking their blessing before he bestowing one on him. Praying the ‘Our Father’ and the ‘Hail Mary’ with the crowd was also a gesture of inclusiveness, since every Christian in the world knows the former prayer, and every Catholic the latter.
Yet like Supreme Court justices, popes can surprise us; no one expected Pope John XXIII to convene the Second Vatican Council.
Though we mostly think of Francis of Assisi as a meek animal lover who gave up his father’s wealth and begged outside St. Peter’s, he was far more complicated than those cartoons of him surrounded by squirrels and bunnies. He was sterner, too, so tough on himself that he is said to have asked his fellow friars to walk on his throat after he said something he regretted, and so on guard against sexual temptation that he only agreed to break bread with the woman we know at St. Clare, founder of the Poor Clares, on the condition that they dine in the middle of the road, in full public view.
Longtime Newsday religion writer Paul Moses wrote a book several years ago, the Saint and the Sultan, that revealed a Francis, himself a former POW, who so hated war and so opposed to the Fifth Crusade that he crossed enemy lines on a peace mission in 1219 – and walked unarmed into the camp of the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. May this Francis surprise us just as much.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors She the People. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.