Well, it was the first time a pope had resigned in more than 600 years. So it was only fitting that it would also be the first time a pope would come from other than Europe in more than 1,300 years.
Of course the break with tradition might have been more dramatic if the Vatican conclave had chosen someone from Asia, or specifically the Philippines, or specifically Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle, but there are limits to the efficacy of prayer by Filipinos. And as they say, be careful with what you pray for: As one friend, a priest, told me, “You want to shove Chito into the murderous politics of the Curia? And I don’t use ‘murderous’ entirely figuratively.” But that’s another story.
The Pope ended up coming from Latin America instead, and not without reason, though it was a bit of a surprise as he wasn’t among the frontrunners. Latin America holds a staggering 42 percent of the world’s Catholics, a rapidly decreasing tribe of late, beset as it is by the rise of Islam among the developing countries and the even more formidable rise of secularism in Europe. Specifically, he ended up coming from Argentina, and significantly from the ranks of the poor.
His elevation to pope has brought a measure of anxiety and joy, concern and exhilaration, among Catholics the world over, but not in equal measure. The joy and exhilaration have been far more overwhelming than the anxiety and concern. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is widely seen as a blast of fresh air in one very stale room.
But first the anxiety and concern. One is Bergoglio’s age, which is 76, which gives him only about 10 productive years or so. That was probably the second biggest thing going against Tagle, his age quite apart from his provenance: He isn’t even a senior citizen yet. It reminds me of what a young Japanese told me once, which was that he couldn’t understand why his country liked having doddering old fools running it instead of young blood.
Two is Bergoglio’s role during the Argentinian military junta in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a vicious rule that carried out torture, summary executions and forced disappearances of thousands of Argentinians. The Argentinian Church was universally regarded afterward as having given the dictatorship its blessings and Bergoglio at least to have given it his silence.
Three is that he is a staunch conservative doctrinally. He and Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner have been feuding bitterly over the past few years over Bergoglio’s opposition to Fernandez’s polices endorsing gay marriage and contraception, a position many Argentinians support. Fernandez and Bergoglio have not been on speaking terms, until lately when Fernandez became one of the first world leaders to congratulate her compatriot on becoming pope.
But the things going for the new Pope are legion and in the scheme of things far more formidable. Bergoglio’s elevation to pope struck me personally as being dramatic because of one stark contrast it presented. Over the past weeks, I’ve seen the cardinals clad in their opulent finery, all in red as they gathered to elect their primus inter pares, and black robes punctuated by red caps and sashes (let it not be said Italians do not know their fashion). I’ve seen the haze of incense as the princes of the Church made their way to the sanctum sanctorum, the black smoke billowing out of the towers until it finally turned white, the hushed conversations and solemn nodding, not unlike Mafia dons deciding their capo di tutti capi. I’ve seen the pomp and ceremony and ritual and I’ve thought:
Whatever it is, the Vatican is also a temporal power. Whatever it is, the Vatican is a mighty temporal power. Whatever else it is saying, the Vatican might as well be saying: “My kingdom is also of this earth.” A far cry from the community Christ created, with apostles drawn from the ranks of fishers, with followers drawn from the ranks of the poor, with a flock drawn from the loins, if not dregs, of the earth, including lepers and outcasts, sinners and prostitutes.
Then suddenly, they elect the son of a railway worker in lieu of a carpenter, indeed the son of a housewife if not a virgin, one who has brought seven children into this world. Then suddenly they elect someone who has compared the Curia to the Pharisees, with their penchant for opulence and office, with their penchant for regarding themselves better than others. Then suddenly they elect someone who has practiced what he preached, riding in buses, dressing like simple folk, visiting slums and the resting places of the restive, washing the feet of recovering drug addicts with a humility that awes.
His chosen name as pope says it all, Francis, after Francis of Assisi, who was the simplest of them all, who was the humblest of them all, who could talk to the lowest of the low apart from the highest of the high. Pope Francis may not be exactly the hippie Franco Zeffirelli turned Francis of Assisi out to be in “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” but he shares in his spirit of wanting to commune with the world if not with Nature, with the children if not with the beasts. Practice trumps theory, way of life trumps doctrine. I don’t particularly care that the new Pope hews to traditional teachings on faith, but his capacity to walk with the poor, talk to the poor, and break bread with the poor, his willingness to listen to the flock and to the world as much as to preach to them, that makes all the difference. That, quite incidentally, is something he shares with Chito Tagle.
There’s hope for the Catholic Church yet. Pope Francis may not be the perfect fit, life unfortunately does not lend itself to perfection, but he’s as close as they come for them.
The shoes of the fisherman.