A Tale of Two Francis

Viva Papa!
Viva Papa!

Here is the full unedited version of a piece I wrote for Mercatornet on our new Holy Father.

The world’s Catholics are reeling with the shock election of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new successor to Peter, even the most seasoned Vaticanistas were not predicting that the runner-up to Ratzinger in the 2005 Conclave was a serious contender, his age and his Jesuit background both seemed to count against him.

Surprise swiftly melted into joy, excitement, anticipation and gratitude upon confirmation that age is clearly no barrier to innovation for the former Cardinal, as signified by his choice of name – the first Pope Francis in almost 2,000 years of Church history.

The name Francis is an indicator as to the future direction of a papacy which will have the themes of simplicity, humility, discipline, reform, rebirth and outreach at its heart. Not only do we have the first ever Pope from Latin America, but in Pope Francis we have something of a two-for-the-price of one, with a fusion of two major religious orders, whose founders both heralded a period of Church renewal and reform. Bergoglio could well prove to be a man for all seasons, combining the spiritual discipline of St Ignatius of Loyola with the humility and simplicity of St Francis of Assisi.

One of the defining qualities of the Jesuit order is that they don’t mess around and always mean business – something that could prove very useful for a Pope for whom reform of the Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucratic arm, is high on the agenda. The recent Vatileaks brouhaha was a symptom of the internecine factionalism that currently besets and hinders this small, but essential part of the Church from running in as efficient a manner as possible. A Pope who could be both governor and enforcer was one of the prerequisite criteria and a key theme emerging from the General Congregations, the meetings that preceded the Conclave. A religious order with a reputation for getting down to business , sorting wheat from the chaff seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered, and those who might doubt whether or not he possess the passion to bang heads together, ought to remember his scorching attack on clericalism, just six months ago in September 2012, when he denounced priests who refused to baptise the babies born outside marriage, as being guilty of “rigorous and hypocritical clericalism”. Pope Francis has no time for what he deems “the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church”.

All of which augurs well, as does his track record of swiftly appointing loyal bishops to troubled dioceses – the Catholic church is not a top-down organisation and depends upon good local governance. Rapid deployment of strong faithful intelligent bishops is key to rooting out decay and planting the seeds of the future.

John Allen, the veteran Vatican observer, has wondered whether or not Bergoglio’s lack of solid experience inside the Vatican itself would prove an obstacle, but an outsider with an Ignatian passion for rigorous discipline and an agenda for change, wholly untainted by insider corruption or personal interests, is ideally placed to implement the much needed root and branch reform. Pope Francis has previous form when it comes to taking action. He rose to prominence following his appointment as the provincial of the Jesuit order in Argentina in 1973, and unlike other Church leaders refused to back the country’s military dictatorship. He held firm against the rising tide of liberation theology sweeping Latin America, discouraging priests from political activism and insisted that Jesuits continued to staff the parishes and chaplaincies where they were needed instead of forming communities. Bergoglio’s insistence on obedience and stamping out of heterodoxy and dissent won him some local enemies, but indicates a desire to get things done, and is a trait that will stand him in good stead when it comes to continuing to root out what the Emeritus Pope Benedict described as the filth of the child abuse scandals, that have rocked the Church in recent years. There can be no doubt that Pope Francis will continue to act with an iron fist when it comes to sorting out sexual transgressions and there will be no room for cover-up. His struggle against the military government of Argentina together with the rise of liberal theology prefigures the battle against the pervasive rise of moral relativism in an increasingly secular West. “After a battle” he reportedly said, “you have to act firmly”.

The previous two pontiffs can be characterized as theological powerhouses, whose teaching was reinforced by a vast canon of personal writings and both of whom could be studied as philosophers and theologians in their own right. Following thirty-five years of academic reflection, many have felt that now is the time for some intellectual breathing space, to give the faithful time to digest and apply what we have been taught by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who unpacked and applied the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Whilst Pope Francis is no intellectual slouch – he trained as a chemist, before joining the priesthood, he has an undisguised passion for literature having taught the subject at University level alongside psychology, philosophy and theology and in true Jesuit tradition has encouraged priests to exercise their cerebral and artistic gifts, few people can pack the cerebral punch of Carol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.

Bergolio’s election is nonetheless a manifestation of the growing desire to see a different style of papacy, one that teaches and leads through its actions as well as words. It can be no surprise that a Cardinal noted for his humility and love of the poor has chosen St Francis of Assisi, the man who reformed the church through simplicity, as his namesake. Of humble origin, born of an Italian immigrant railway worker, Jorge Bergoglio has eschewed all trappings of office, avoiding media interviews and urging people not to spend money on plane tickets to Rome to celebrate his election to the Cardinalate in 2001, but instead to give the money to the poor. Instead of living in a lavish episcopal mansion in Buenos Aires, he chose instead to live in a small apartment where he cooked his own meals, did his own housework and took the bus around town visiting the poor, rather than a chauffeur driven limousine. True to form, following his election to the papacy, he chose to take the bus back to the hotel instead of using the Holy Father’s car, to spend one final night with the cardinals and emerged suitcases in hand in the hotel lobby, to pay his own bill.

In an era that is reaping the consequences of globalisation and the ravages of a rampant unchecked capitalism, the Christian message of concern for the poor and of social injustice is of paramount import. In Francis, we have a Pope who embodies the compassion of Christ, whether that be by kissing the feet of AIDS victims, or rolling up his sleeves and going out and ministering to the poor, accompanied by a rhetoric that denounces the failures of neo-liberalism.

One of the frustrating aspects of the papacy of the Pope Emeritus was that his constant critiques of an economy based on individualistic greed and mind-blowing masterclasses on natural law and reason were subsumed and ignored by a media only interested in sexual ethics and scandal. Pope Benedict’s problem was not that he was by any means ineffective, it is thanks to him that the Catholic Church now sets the gold standard in terms of child protection issue, but that self-promotion was not his forte and the Vatican failed to communicate the extensive measures that had been taken and neither did they initially understand the nature of a rolling global 24/7 media. At times it appeared that the Vatican press office consisted of an elderly telegraph machine and answerphone, allowing, in the words of Mark Twain, a lie to travel half way around the world, whilst the truth was still putting its shoes on.

The willingness to engage with the media could potentially pose one of the few problems for this naturally modest yet deeply spiritual man. Yet from the moment that the world caught of a glimpse of the new Pope it was clear, that whilst not possessing the natural charisma or showmanship of John Paul II, his prayerful nature demonstrated by breaking with tradition and asking the crowd to pray for him, before giving the customary blessing, this simplicity will be precisely how he will win hearts and minds in the New Evangelisation. Pope Francis is a man whose actions will demonstrate that he is all substance over what will be a very humble style.

Pope Francis has something for everyone, a seamless garment- a man who straddles all aspects of a diverse church, a man who holds the concepts of social justice as close to his heart as issues surrounding the unborn, the elderly and the protection of the nuclear family. His first papal blessing was given to a pregnant woman who happened to have got up early to pray at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where he too had gone to pray before the Roman image of the Mother of God. Pope Francis, will be a pope of the people, leading the way forward by example in prayer and in a lifestyle of simple humility.

Whilst there is some concern amongst traditionalists in terms of liturgical preferences, there is no reason to believe that he will be openly hostile to the reforms of Summorum Pontificorum – frankly he has bigger fish to fry and is too canny to alienate a significant proportion of the world’s faithful. Although yesterday’s Mass may have caused some facepalming amongst those delighted in Pope Benedict’s liturgical reform of the reform (‘Holy Father I love you already, but what’s with the polyester and freestanding altar’ said one friend), whilst Pope Francis may see a temporary return to practices that some may have hoped were on the decline, I think we have to remember that if he wishes to face the people, or changes the Benedictine altar set-up, it’s simply because he wants the people to see Christ – it is with good heart and intent, not because he has some secret liturgical agenda.

Though 76 and with only one lung, Pope Francis still has plenty of life to breathe into the Church, combining the evangelical zeal of St Francis Xavier, with the reforming simplicity good works and love of the poor of St Francis of Assisi. Whilst the Church may not be in ruins, this holy man from the South may be just the breath of fresh air that it needs. Jesuit decision-maker and political negotiator melded with poor mendicant friar will sow the seeds for a twenty-first century Catholic revival, in a world grown jaded and weary with the selfish excesses of consumerism. Catholics will need to start putting their money where their mouths are.

Pope Francis on an Argentinian tube
Snapped unaware on the Tube

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