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Holy Father's Election: Surprise Within Continuity

BY Jimmy Akin

March 24-April 6, 2013 Issue | Posted 3/19/13 at 1:31 PM

 

Like many, I was somewhat surprised when Pope Francis was elected.

Based on information that had leaked out about the 2005 conclave, I knew that he was a strong candidate back then, apparently amassing the second-highest number of votes. (Cardinal Ratzinger, obviously, got the most.)

Some were discussing him as a possible pope this time; yet, after Pope Benedict’s resignation on age-related grounds, I didn’t expect the election of Cardinal Bergoglio — who, at age 76, is just two years younger than Pope Benedict was when he was elected.

We’re all obviously still getting to know him, but what can we say about Pope Francis thus far? How does he compare to his recent predecessors?

 

A Pope of Surprises

There are many "firsts" about Pope Francis — the first pope from the Americas, the first Jesuit pope — and we can expect him to be a pope of surprises.

To some extent, every pope is that, but when a pope chooses a name that has never been used before in the history of the papacy, that’s a signal that he’s prepared to do the unexpected, and so that’s what we must expect.

We shouldn’t expect radical ruptures with the past, but we should expect what you might call "surprise within continuity," to bend a phrase from Pope Benedict, who spoke of "reform within continuity."

While the choice of a new name was surprising, the choice of the name "Francis" was in continuity with the Catholic Tradition.

 

The Choice of Name

I’ve done a special study of the history of papal names, and there are certain points in history when the popes seem to feel that the pool of recent papal names needs "freshening up."

We seem to be living in such a time, because, of the last six popes, several have made unexpected name choices: John XXIII and Paul VI both reached back several hundred years to find their papal names, and John Paul I and Francis picked entirely new names.

While I wasn’t expecting a new papal name, I recognized that it was a possibility and — given that it happened — I wasn’t surprised at all that the name was Francis. I’ve thought for 10 years that if a new pope were to pick an unprecedented name, he would likely choose this one.

As a name, "Francis" sends all the right signals.

Although other saints (like his fellow Jesuit St. Francis Xavier) are by no means excluded, the choice of the name Francis immediately and inescapably calls to mind St. Francis of Assisi.

It thus signals the humility, simplicity, service and concern for the poor that the great saint displayed.

 

Francis and the Poor

St. Francis himself joined the poor in begging at St. Peter’s Basilica, and now Pope Francis presides there.

Given that, and given the concern for simplicity and for the poor that Cardinal Bergoglio showed in Argentina, we should expect to hear quite a bit from Pope Francis about these themes.

Recent popes have emphasized the Church’s "preferential option for the poor," but we may expect this Pope to stress it with special emphasis.

 

A Man of Humility

If St. Francis was humble, so is Pope Francis. This has been evident from his time as a cardinal and from the first moments he appeared as our Pope.

As a cardinal, he was renowned for living in a simple apartment, cooking his own meals and taking the bus.

When he first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, he showed a quiet reserve and, strikingly, asked for people to pray for him (bowing his head as they did so) before imparting his papal blessing.

After the larger-than-life John Paul II, with the boundless energy and enthusiasm he showed before his health began to decline, Pope Benedict’s humility and reserve were apparent. But Pope Francis may carry these even further.

Yet we shouldn’t expect him to be just shy and retiring. To the contrary.

 

A Blunt Man

Pope Benedict showed a remarkable frankness in his pontificate, and we may expect the same of Pope Francis.

In his time as a cardinal, he showed that he could be remarkably frank — even blunt.

This came out particularly with issues like abortion, euthanasia, homosexual "marriage" and homosexual adoption.

He compared abortion to the death penalty for the unborn, even in cases of rape, and he said that the adoption of children by homosexuals was a form of discrimination against children.

He has also spoken out forcefully against clericalism, whether on the part of clergy or the laity.

And he speaks bluntly of the reality of the devil and his destructive role in the world.

 

Evangelization and Reform

Two of the concerns expressed by the cardinals in the days leading up to the conclave were the need for evangelization and the reform of the Roman Curia — the group of departments that assist the pope in governing the Church.

What is Pope Francis likely to do on these fronts?

As a cardinal, he demonstrated a concern for evangelization. He is on record as saying that the Church cannot stay closed in on itself in a "self-referential" fashion, but must go out and proclaim its message.

He also issued forceful denunciations of clerical pride and careerism, which may suggest a willingness to take on the problems in the Roman Curia.

But he still needs our prayers.

As Pope Francis himself said in his first speech on the balcony, "Let us always pray for one another."

Jimmy Akin is a Register columnist and blogger.

He is senior apologist at Catholic Answers and

author of an e-book on the names of the popes.