A Week of Firsts

The “Bergoglio comeback” and insights from Vatican-watchers into what we can expect from Pope Francis

Some of the less-experienced journalists covering the papal conclave were right on the money one week ago. As wrote in my report last Monday, many of these young vaticanisti covering their first conclave believed that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had a strong chance of surging from behind to beat leading papabili such as Cardinals Scola and Ouellet. 

They were convinced the Argentine would have his rivincita—his comeback—in the 2013 conclave. Their rookie rhyme was not without reason.

Their plain and simple reasoning, not appreciated by the most experienced Vatican scholars and journalists, was essentially this: here is a man who was the apparent runner-up in 2005, and 50 of the cardinal electors from 2005 would be present again in the Sistine Chapel. Surely a good portion of them, say 30 to 40, would team up to recast a Bergoglio ballot for pope. Certainly many cardinal electors still felt wronged for having lost and desired retribution. Thus, they came to battle for their chosen leader.

Even if this wasn’t exactly what played out behind the closed doors of the conclave, a man known as “the quiet thunder” would indeed come roaring from behind to be chosen in the 2013 papal election.

To their credit, expert papal scholars and veteran vaticanisti, such as John Allen, Jr., did have a hunch: namely, the next pope would come from a developing country, most likely from the New World, and with little or no Curia experience, thus being positioned as an objective reformer without the local friends or nepotistic considerations that can fuel corruption.

Like other experts, Allen thought the most likely scenario involved a New World candidate who is Euro-compatible, that is, a polyglot with plenty of first-world experience and Continental heritage. Thus there was strong support for the Brazilian of German extraction, Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer. Bergoglio was seen as too old, especially considering Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had apparently indicated the need for a younger, more energetic successor.

All said and done, it is a fairly safe bet that Cardinal Bergolgio had very strong support on the first vote and that he enjoyed a wave of momentum until the white smoke blew after the fifth round on day two.  It is also a safe bet to say the Holy Spirit gently nudged cardinal electors to reconsider Bergoglio when, during the last of the pre-conclave general congregations, he urged his colleagues to revitalize the Church’s sensitivity to poverty, renew her virtue of austerity in a consumerist-materialistic society, and rid herself of sinful corruption.

The rest is now history.

A week of firsts

Certainly, last Wednesday was not the first time many faithful had personally witnessed the exciting Habemus Papam! pronounced from St. Peter’s loggia.

Many folks, just like me, were right there in St. Peter’s Square only eight years ago when a shy Benedict appeared before a spill-over crowd. Still others, now graying and with grandchildren, were there on John Paul I’s or John Paul II’s first day nearly 35 years ago.

Notwithstanding, this past week proved a historic week of “firsts” for many other noteworthy reasons.

We now have the first Jesuit pope. And the first pope named Francis. He is the first non-European pope since Gregory III, an eighth-century Syrian. And we now have the very first pope from the Americas.

We have also witnessed a pope who is shunning what some critics perceive as Vatican tinsel and niceties during these economic hard times.

Francis has refused to ride in the pope’s private car (preferring the shuttle bus) or to wear red shoes and a fur-lined cape, or mozzetta, opting for ordinary black shoes and a white cassock.

This is the first time in a very long while that we have listened to a pope who readily quips in public and frequently includes off-script interjections to prepared remarks—at his first Mass with his brother cardinals, then a second time during his first press conference with journalists on Saturday, then a third time during his Sunday sermon at the Vatican parish of St. Anne, and again only a few hours later at his noontime Angelus, when he preached from his apartment above St. Peter’s Square. Not even John Paul II was at such ease with humor and his own words so early on in his pontificate.

Profiling Francis: Insights from Vatican experts

We have had barely six days to get to know Pope Francis a little better. And many of us are just now delving into Bergoglio’s biography, analyzing his past sermons, and scurrying to the ends of the World Wide Web to discover further insight into his media-shy persona.

To help us understand more about Francis, I have recalled some of last week’s contributors to my CWR article: Edward Pentin, John Allen, Jr., and Samuel Gregg. I have enlisted their help to articulate distinct points about the Holy Father’s character as a pastor, communicator, and thinker, and as a Jesuit. 

Francis the pastor: “John Paul II and Benedict XVI rolled into one”

Edward Pentin, the widely read British vaticanista who contributes to the National Catholic Register, Zenit, and NewsMax and presently serves as lead analyst for the UK’s Sky News TV, spoke to me about how he sees Francis’ already well-received “pastoral style.”

“[While] Benedict XVI’s pastoral emphasis was on his writings, Francis’ will make more use of actions, symbols, and gestures,” Pentin said.

Pentin says Francis is likely to concentrate his pastoral discourses on four elements: “Christ, the poor, peace, and safeguarding creation.”

In Argentina, Pentin says Francis was known as for his warmth, humility, and compassion—three virtues that are particularly effective when pastoring both fallen-away and practicing Catholics. His outgoing pastoral style is exactly what some hoped for from a potential pope Timothy Dolan, the folksy and hospitable archbishop of New York, and by those nostalgic for the ability of Blessed John Paul II to move the largest crowds to tears and soften the hearts of even non-believers.

Pentin does not think Francis’ emphasis on simplicity and the accessible language he has used will cause him problems. Will it make it difficult for him to carry the whole Church with him, attracting both bookish Ratzingerians and Facebooking youth alike? “It’s too early to say,” according to Pentin.

He does expect Francis to balance his charisma “with a steely resolve and [language that is] dogmatically orthodox.”

“This makes him pastoral in the truest sense of the word: offering solid and clear spiritual guidance while at the same time being able to show deep compassion—you could almost say, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI rolled into one,” Pentin explained.

Francis the thinker: “Jesuits are typically not dim bulbs!”

I asked John Allen, Jr., America’s most authoritative vaticanista, what more he could tell us about Francis’ thinking and scholarly capacity, especially since the new Holy Father has published comparatively little, apparently preferring to spend time on the street with the poor and suffering than theorizing about how to best serve them.

“My read is that being a man of the people and being a thinker are not mutually exclusive,” Allen said.

Allen thinks that because Francis is a Jesuit—an order that requires its aspiring priests to study twice as long as diocesan priests—his intelligence will be on bright display as pope: “Whatever else you want to say about Jesuits, they’re typically not dim bulbs!”

We have already heard several clever quips from the new pope. He told journalists at his first press conference that he considered taking the name Clement XV, to avenge himself on Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773. After alluding to a book by German Cardinal Walter Kasper during his first Angelus address, he added, “Don’t think that I’m publicizing the books of my cardinals, that is not the case!”

John Allen says that, theologically speaking, Francis “profiles as the typical bishop from the developing world…very conservative on matters of sexual morality, fairly progressive on economic justice, armed conflict, [and] the environment.”

Under his episcopal leadership in Buenos Aires, as provincial of his order, and as a two-term president of the Argentinean Bishops Conference, Francis was known to oppose fiercely not only dissenting intellectuals and political leaders, but also his fellow clerics.

“As far as the Jesuits go, he tried to hold the line against liberation theology in the 1970s, insisting that his priests should be pastors and spiritual guides, not politicians,” Allen said. “It made him unpopular in the order. Actually, one cardinal said to me after the conclave: ‘Maybe it will take a Jesuit to fix the Jesuits!’”

Francis the advocate of the poor: “A model for all of us”

Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, which specializes in articulating the intersection of religious faith with economic matters, said it is absolutely wrong to pigeon-hole Francis as a particular type of economist.

“Pope Francis is not a socialist, capitalist, leftist, libertarian, Keynesian, Hayekian, supply-sider, demand-sider, deficit hawk, or monetary dove,” Gregg said.

“He’s a Catholic, and like any other Catholic, he will look to the Scriptures, Church Tradition, the writings of the Church Fathers, the teachings of popes and councils, as well as the natural law for guidance on how to address economic questions and challenges.”

Of course Francis will be concerned about the poor, Gregg says—“That’s something Christ commanded all his followers to do.” And Francis’ care for the poor in Buenos Aires has been widely noted; he famously visited and celebrated Mass in the slums, asked supporters to donate their airfare money to the poor instead of coming to Rome when he was made a cardinal, and rode buses, trams, and subways instead of using a chauffeured car service.

Gregg says not to expect Francis to provide the Catholic faithful with a “detailed five-year plan for economic reform, or a ten-point schema for economic liberalization.”

“It is not so, because [he believes] those things are primarily the responsibility of the laity,” he said.

What we know for sure, Gregg says, is that Francis is on record as identifying “corruption as the number-one problem facing [his] country’s economy.”

That matters, Gregg says, “because while there is an economic dimension to corruption, [the pope] knows that there is first and foremost a moral dimension to corruption.”

In Gregg’s opinion all of this suggests that Francis will focus “on the need for inner moral reform, for interior conversion, [and] for making Christ’s light part and parcel of all that we do in economic life.”

Gregg, like the other Vatican experts whose insights into Francis I solicited, agrees that the new pope will provide the critical, “action-oriented leadership” the Church needs to alleviate poverty in the world. He says that thanks to Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul II, the Church has already plentiful intellectual content to validate the moral imperative to help the poor.

“[But] now we need to live it. And, like his namesake, Francis will be a model for all of us.”

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About Michael Severance 12 Articles
Michael Severance is a former Vatican correspondent and currently manages operations for the Acton Institute’s academic outreach in Rome.