It hasn’t yet been a week since he was elected, but the man announced as Cardinal Bergoglio/Pope Francis who first appeared to the world on the loggia of St. Peter’s and stood stiff and straight and speechless for what seemed a long time took only a few minutes to throw the world off balance. In a good way.
The ‘firsts’ are legendary now. First Jesuit pope, first Pope Francis, first pope to ask for the people’s prayers for him and bow to receive it in a moment of silence, before he blessed them. And so on. He is who he is, and so profoundly and historically weighty an elevation as this was not going to change him. Take a look at this brief video of the cardinals greeting him after the election. Many of them left laughing. And the account of the doorman at the Jesuit house in Rome who answered the phone when the pope called to thank the Father General for his gracious letter of congratulations.
Over the weekend Facebook was filled with photos of the new pope checking out at his hotel in Rome and paying his own bill from his own funds, in his white papal garments. Which were quickly followed by photos from inside the bus where cardinals were shuttled around Vatican grounds and there in one of the bus seats was a white-robed pope. He opted for that ride instead of a chauffered car. The Vatican is not used to this.
He greeted the credentialed journalists who covered the conclave and his election – about 6,000 of them – and disarmed them with his ready wit and easy smile. And a message that was pointed and direct but warm.
The role of the mass media has expanded immensely in these years, so much so that they are an essential means of informing the world about the events of contemporary history. I would like, then, to thank you in a special way for the professional coverage which you provided during these days – you really worked, didn’t you? – when the eyes of the whole world, and not just those of Catholics, were turned to the Eternal City and particularly to this place which has as its heart the tomb of Saint Peter. Over the past few weeks, you have had to provide information about the Holy See and about the Church, her rituals and traditions, her faith and above all the role of the Pope and his ministry.
I am particularly grateful to those who viewed and presented these events of the Church’s history in a way which was sensitive to the right context in which they need to be read, namely that of faith.
Historical events almost always demand a nuanced interpretation which at times can also take into account the dimension of faith. Ecclesial events are certainly no more intricate than political or economic events! But they do have one particular underlying feature: they follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the “worldly” categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public. The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual…
He also gave them a scoop.
Some people wanted to know why the Bishop of Rome wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes [OFM]: a good friend, a good friend! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: “Don’t forget the poor!” And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor! Afterwards, people were joking with me. “But you should call yourself Hadrian, because Hadrian VI was the reformer, we need a reform…” And someone else said to me: “No, no: your name should be Clement”. “But why?” “Clement XV: thus you pay back Clement XIV who suppressed the Society of Jesus!” These were jokes. I love all of you very much, I thank you for everything you have done. I pray that your work will always be serene and fruitful, and that you will come to know ever better the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the rich reality of the Church’s life.
The next day, his first to celebrate Mass and deliver the traditional mid-day Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Francis took to the streets near the Vatican in an impromptu outreach to the people. It must have given the papal security detail fits. But that’s how he sees the mission of helping people ‘to know ever better the Gospel’ and ‘rich reality of the Church’s life’ and it’s the way he did it in Argentina.
So what did papal biographer George Weigel, one of the top world experts on the Catholic Church and the papacy, chief Vatican analyst for NBC News, have to say about this pick, after all? After the beloved and legendary John Paul II. After Benedict XVI. Excellent philosopher succeeded by excellent theologian, both of whom had participated in Vatican II and the blueprint for the Church’s engagement with the modern world. After Weigel recently released his latest book ’Evangelical Catholicism’ as a blueprint for ‘Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church’?
With great aplomb, Weigel called Francis ‘The First American Pope’, and pronounced him just the right pick.
The swift election of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., as bishop of Rome is replete with good news — and not a little irony. To reverse the postmodern batting order, let’s begin with the good news.
A true man of God. The wheelchair-bound beggar at the corner of Via della Conciliazione and Via dell’Erba this morning had a keen insight into his new bishop: “Sono molto contento; e un profeta” (“I’m very happy; he’s a prophet”). That was certainly the overwhelming impression I took away from the hour I spent with the archbishop of Buenos Aires and future pope last May — here was a genuine man of God, who lives “out” from the richness and depth of his interior life; a bishop who approaches his responsibilities as a churchman and his decisions as the leader of a complex organization from a Gospel-centered perspective, in a spirit of discernment and prayer…
A pope for the New Evangelization. The election of Pope Francis completes the Church’s turn from the Counter-Reformation Catholicism that brought the Gospel to America — and eventually produced Catholicism’s first American pope — to the Evangelical Catholicism that must replant the Gospel in those parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored, while planting it afresh in new fields of mission around the globe.
Weigel nailed that, “parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored.” How to address the global culture today, and even find mission fields?
Here, in a statement that then-cardinal Bergoglio had a significant hand in drafting, is what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called the “New Evangelization” in synthetic microcosm:
The Church of the 21st century cannot rely on the ambient public culture, or on folk memories of traditional Catholic culture, to transmit the Gospel in a way that transforms individual lives, cultures, and societies. Something more, something deeper, is needed.
Something much more, and much deeper, and much more accessible is needed.
That is the message that Pope Francis will take to the world: Gospel-centered Catholicism, which challenges the post-mod cynics, the metaphysically bored, and the spiritually dry to discover (or rediscover) the tremendous human adventure of living “inside” the Biblical narrative of history.
Judging from the boatload of other stories to cover, from Washington politics to Wall Street and Eurozone finances, Middle East flashpoints and middle America unrest, UN humanitarian relief missions to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, this is one to get right to get the rest at all. Because they are all centered on the dignity and humanity of the human person, and the right order of the way things ought to be, beautifully articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other documents issued in between and since.
Pope Francis is officially installed at the Mass of Inauguration on Tuesday. It may be just another day to a lot of people. But it’s a new day for a lot of humanity.