With the surprise election of Pope Francis, following the stunning and completely unexpected abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, our prayers have been answered.
The Church, the family of God to whom Jesus promised he would always be present through a representative, beginning with St. Peter, who would lovingly rule the children of his flock — guiding them to holiness, teaching them and at times correcting them — is rejoicing.
Catholics affectionately call this representative Papa or Pope because we love and trust him to guide us in this life and show us the way to the heavenly Father. That is why we rejoice madly when that white fumata appears — no matter who the particular man is. In Pope Francis, we rejoice. We now have a new Holy Father. We are orphans no more!
The Church, which by its very essence was born universal, is now truly global — not only by the communion of the saints, but also thanks to new technologies that enable the word of God to be communicated in virtually any place, in any part of the world, at relatively low cost. And now, for the first time since early Christianity, we have a pope who is not only not from Europe, but also from another hemisphere that contains 40% of the world’s Catholic faithful.
At first glance, there are several delightful characteristics about Pope Francis that undoubtedly will be a blessing to the Church.
Firstly, his intellect. He has degrees in philosophy, theology and chemistry. He has taught literature and psychology. Has any other pope in history arrived with such a broad academic résumé to the Chair of Peter?
Secondly, the respect he has received from his fellow Jesuits, who elected him superior of the Jesuit Province of Argentina. It is rare for a Jesuit to become not only an archbishop, much less a cardinal, and it’s completely unprecedented for a member of the Society of Jesus to be the supreme pontiff.
Lastly, and perhaps most impressive, is his evident humility, as shown not only in his choice of pontifical name, but by his personal poverty and pastoral work in Argentina.
Pastorally, he has shown a preferential option for the poor. Indeed, one small example is how much time he spends hearing confession and giving spiritual guidance — not only to the elite, but also to the poor. They all know him simply as Father Jorge.
He has been heroically loyal to the Church’s teaching on marriage and the right to life. And he has expressed those views strongly to the government.
On marriage, he has said: “Let’s not be naïve; we’re not talking about a simple political battle. It is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but, rather, a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
He has also said: “At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”
All of this puts Pope Francis in line among the most remarkable succession of popes in the modern history of the Church. From Pope Pius XII up to Blessed John Paul II, all the popes in between have had their causes for canonization officially opened. And who would bet against an eventual cause for Benedict XVI when he leaves this valley of tears for a better place?
This remarkable succession of popes is a cause for hope. But we must also remain realistic about the Church’s mission in this new millennium.
The Church’s mission, simply put, is to help as many people on earth to get to heaven as possible before the world is shut down and Jesus comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Two words are key to fulfilling the Church’s mission: evangelization and holiness.
However, the Church is in the world — though not of the world — and joyfully plays its role in the charitable service of mankind and all races, all of whom are seen as children of God, regardless of their religious beliefs.
How appropriate that Pope Francis has chosen St. Francis of Assisi as his patron of his pontificate.
What can we expect from this pontificate?
Above all, continuity. I suspect we’ll see a continuation from him with the two special popes who proceeded him in finally and forever putting into global practice the primary message of the Second Vatican Council that we are celebrating in this Year of Faith.
That message is the joyful universal call to holiness, not just for clergy or consecrated religious, but for every baptized Christian. And a holiness that is evangelical — in both words and deed — from men and women whose hearts have burned within them when they encountered the risen Christ.
Indeed, we are orphans no more. Pope Francis, lead your children in holiness and apostolic zeal!
Opus Dei Father C.J. McCloskey III is a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.