The world’s Catholics are reeling after the election of the Argentinian Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere. Even seasoned Vaticanistas were surprised, as his age and his Jesuit background both seemed to count against him.
The shock swiftly melted into joy, excitement, anticipation and gratitude. Age is clearly no barrier to innovation for the former Cardinal, as symbolised by his choice of name. “Francis” suggests a papacy of simplicity, humility, discipline, reform, rebirth and outreach. And it is also two-for-the-price of one, a fusion of the spirits of two major religious orders whose founders heralded renewal and reform. Bergolio will be a man for all seasons, combining the spiritual discipline of Jesuit founder St Ignatius of Loyola with the humility and simplicity of St Francis of Assisi.
One of the defining qualities of the Jesuit order is its efficiency – 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 keeps this small but essential part of the Church from running efficiently. A Pope who is both governor and enforcer was apparently a key theme emerging from the General Congregations, the meetings that preceded the Conclave. An Argentinian with a reputation for getting down to business and sorting wheat from the chaff seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Those who doubt whether Francis can bang heads together should read the scorching attack on clericalism he delivered six months ago. He denounced priests who refused to baptise the babies born outside marriage as being guilty of “rigorous and hypocritical clericalism”. The new Pope has no time for what he deems “the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church”.
John Allen, the veteran Vatican observer, has wondered whether or not Bergoglio’s lack of solid experience inside the Vatican itself will prove an obstacle. But an outsider with an Ignatian passion for discipline and an agenda for change is well placed to implement much needed reforms.
Pope Francis has form as a manager. He rose to prominence following his appointment as the provincial of the Jesuit order in Argentina in 1973. Unlike some other Church leaders he refused to back the country’s military dictatorship. He also held firm against the rising tide of liberation theology sweeping Latin America. He discouraged priests from political activism and insisted that Jesuits continued to staff the parishes and chaplaincies where they were needed.
There can be no doubt that Pope Francis will continue to act with an iron fist when it comes to sorting out sexual transgressions. His confrontations in Argentina have prepared him to tackle the rise of moral relativism in an increasingly secular West. “After a battle,” he has reportedly said, “you have to act firmly”.
The previous two pontiffs were theological powerhouses. But many Catholics want some breathing space to digest what they were taught by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Francis is no intellectual slouch. He trained as a chemist before joining the Jesuits and he has taught literature, psychology, philosophy and theology at university level. But the world will see a different style of papacy, one that leads through 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 the trappings of high office, avoiding media interviews and urging people to give money to the poor instead of joining him in Rome when he became a Cardinal.
Instead of living in an episcopal mansion in Buenos Aires, he chose to live in a small apartment where he cooked his own meals, did his own housework and took the bus around town to visit the poor. True to form, following his election to the papacy, he chose to take the bus back to the hotel to spend one final night with the cardinals.
In an era of globalisation and rampant capitalism, the Christian message of concern for the poor and of social injustice is of paramount import. One of the frustrating aspects of the papacy of the Pope Emeritus was that his criticism of capitalism and his mind-blowing master-classes on natural law and reason were ignored by the scandal-hungry media.
Thanks to Benedict, the Catholic Church now sets the gold standard in terms of child protection issue. But the Vatican failed to come to grips with the 24/7 news cycle. At times it appeared that the press office allowed, in the words of Mark Twain, a lie to travel half way around the world, whilst the truth was still putting its shoes on.
Engaging with the media could pose a problem for this naturally modest and deeply spiritual man. Yet his simplicity will win hearts and minds.
This Pope has something for everyone: 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. Pope Francis will be a pope of the people, leading the way forward by example in prayer and in a lifestyle of simple humility.
Although he is 76 and has only one lung, Pope Francis has plenty of life to breathe into the Church, combining the evangelical zeal of St Francis Xavier, with the simplicity, good works and love of the poor of St Francis of Assisi.
This holy man from the South is the breath of fresh air that the Catholic Church needs. A Jesuit decision-maker and political negotiator melded with poor mendicant friar will sow the seeds for a revival of Christian spirit in a world grown weary with the selfish excesses of consumerism.
Caroline Farrow lives in the UK and is married to a former Anglican vicar who converted to Catholicism. She is a member of Catholic Voices.