For many people, including many Catholics, the Catholic Church is too old-fashioned, staid, and boring, supposedly failing to be “relevant” and “with the times.” And yet, the ancient traditions and venerable institutions of the Church—especially the papacy—continue to fascinate and even transfix the world at large. And today’s events in Rome demonstrate this fact, showing that Catholicism, far from being dull and predictable, is both consistently compelling and often very unpredictable.
Pope Francis is Exhibit A through Z. First, the unpredictable. Although the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was reportedly a runner-up in the 2005 papal election, he wasn’t on most short lists for this conclave, largely because he is 76 years old, just two years younger than was Cardinal Ratzinger eight years ago. While the possibility of a pope from the Americas seemed more likely than ever before, the names mentioned were mostly from North America, especially Cardinals Dolan and O’Malley.
And yet, just 24 hours and a few votes into the conclave, the first pope from the Americas was introduced to the world. He also is the first pope who belongs to the Society of Jesus, which is something to ponder considering the Jesuits were founded nearly 500 years ago, but also because his taken name, Francis, seems more Franciscan than Jesuit.
Yet even the name comes with a twist or, better, with layers of possible meaning. Most people, understandably, think of St. Francis of Assisi, known for his poverty and humility. That is certainly in keeping with Bergoglio’s modest, working-class roots and his widely acknowledged humble and low-key approach, evidenced by his regular use of the bus in Buenos Aires.
But St. Francis of Assisi, viewing the dilapidated church of St. Damian, was told by Jesus Christ, “Francis, go and repair my house, which you see is falling down.” There has been much talk of “reform”, and most of it has centered not on changing Church doctrine—which needs to be communicated, not reformed—but on cleaning up corruption and rooting out spiritual sloth. Such repair is ever necessary in the household of God, the Church.
However, two other Francis’s—both of them Jesuits—must be mentioned, both very likely on the mind of Pope Francis. The first is St. Francis Xavier (d. 1552), one of the first Jesuits and among the greatest missionaries in Church history (he is the patron saint of missions). He is a model of evangelistic focus and fervor, and as such indicates that Pope Francis is dedicated to the task of the “new evangelization” that was prominent in the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The second is St. Francis Borgia (d. 1572), who is known for fighting corruption among the powerful and injustices against the poor. As one book of saints states, he was “self-effacing, determined, enterprising, winning people of all ranks by his kindness and courtesy.” (We could even ponder St. Francis de Sales, a doctor of the Church who contended mightily against Protestantism, a concern in Latin America.)
Such a description could be applied to Pope Francis, who has not only talked the talk by proclaiming Church teaching with firmness and clarity, but also walked the walk. As John Allen, Jr., pithily put in his pre-conclave profile: “Bergoglio has supported the social justice ethos of Latin American Catholicism, including a robust defense of the poor.” The new pope is the epitome of an orthodox Catholic whose approach to the political and social realms cannot be neatly cast as “conservative”, especially not as the term is widely used and understood in the U.S. In the midst of labor strikes in Buenos Aires in 2001, for example, he drew a strong comparison between the “poor people who are persecuted for demanding work, and rich people who are applauded for fleeing from justice”.
Cardinal Bergoglio has been widely praised for sensitive and pastoral actions and qualities, and yet has not shied away from directly confronting moral ills. He seems to have a penchant for straight talk. In the summer of 2010, addressing a vote in the Argentine senate to legalize “same-sex marriage”, the cardinal flatly stated, “This is no mere legislative bill. It is a move by the father of lies to confuse and deceive the children of God…” In 2007 he described abortion as “a death sentence” and last year said, “Abortion is never a solution.”
Such statements will be trotted by some as evidence that Pope Francis is the “same old, same old.” In a sense, that is correct: this is the same ancient, moral teaching the Catholic Church has always held. But Francis brings a most unusual and impressive resume to the table, as have his immediate predecessors. He was raised in a blue collar setting before taking on the Roman collar and walking the halls of both the academy (he has degrees in chemistry, theology, and philosophy) and ecclesial authority (he has been the President of the Argentine Episcopal Conference). The son of Italian immigrants, he has lived in Argentina, studied in Germany, and is very familiar with Rome and the Vatican.
He is the “insider” outsider, or perhaps the “outsider” insider. He upholds Church teaching without apology, and he is already being viewed as a “pope of the people”. The two are not, in fact, in contradiction since, as John Paul II expressed in Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”, 1993), “it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all.” Pope Francis has already indicated, through his pre-papal life and his papal name, that he is intent on proclaiming the same Way, Truth, and Life, which is always relevant and for all times and peoples.