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Habemus Papam! Pope Francis, a Humble Servant

A Welcome Surprise

BY Edward Pentin

Rome Correspondent

March 24-April 6, 2013 Issue | Posted 3/19/13 at 2:44 PM

 

VATICAN CITY — Uncertainty quickly gave way to elation among the faithful that thronged St. Peter’s Square as the name of Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was announced from the loggia of the basilica.

Few of the 100,000-strong crowd who had gathered to welcome the successor to Benedict XVI were expecting the 76-year-old Argentine cardinal to become Pope in this election.

Delight seemed initially to mix with some bewilderment as people took in the name.

But, quickly, shouts of "Fran-ce-sco" from the Roman-heavy international crowd signaled the Italians had already taken him to their hearts, helped by the fact that he has Italian ancestry.

Many Vatican watchers were predicting a younger candidate than Cardinal Bergoglio, who lives with one lung (although it’s a condition he has had for many years). It was reported the Argentine cardinal allegedly came in second in the conclave of 2005 that elevated Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy.

However, the history of the popes is rife with vital elder statesmen. Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council, was elected right before he turned 76, and Benedict XVI was elected at 78.

But according to one of the few Vatican watchers who has been well acquainted with the new Pope for many years, the conclave cardinals made a superb decision in selecting Francis.

"This is an extraordinary election," said Alejandro Bermudez, director of Latin America’s largest online Catholic news service, ACI Prensa, and founder of the U.S.-based Catholic News Agency. "He is absolutely comfortable in his own skin. He’s incredibly minimalistic. He showed up without the mozzetta (when he appeared at the loggia). He came out wearing plain white.

And his choice of the name Francis is completely humble."

Pope Francis telephoned Benedict XVI the evening of his election and was expected to visit him soon.

On March 14, he celebrated his first Mass with cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, after praying at St. Mary Major earlier in the day. The new Pope had an audience with journalists at the Vatican March 16 and celebrated his first Angelus on Sunday, March 17. His inauguration Mass took place on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, in St. Peter’s.

A man of deep simplicity and humility, Pope Francis used to cook for himself, ride buses to work and cared for a disabled priest, in addition to all of his other duties as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

But he also made a point of never wanting to live in the Vatican and resisted invitations from John Paul II to work in the Curia, saying he would "die there" if he was sent to Rome.

"He’s incredibly learned and a serious theologian," said Bermudez. "He’s known for being critical of the Curia."

Still, the outcome was unexpected, even among senior Vatican officials.

One of those surprised by the result was the Vatican’s Jesuit spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, who knows Pope Francis, though not well. "I’m in shock," he told reporters shortly after the election. "I’m shocked that he [the new Pope] is from Latin America and by his name."

Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to be elected pope in the order’s history, the first pope from the Americas and the first pontiff to take the name Francis. Members of the Society of Jesus are called to be servants of the servants of the Church, but, until now, not to be in such authoritative positions. For this reason, Father Lombardi said he found it "a little strange to have a Jesuit as pope," but he was clearly moved and delighted by the news.

He also thought the name appropriate — after St. Francis of Assisi. "The choice of the name Francis is very meaningful," he said. "It is a name that has never been chosen before and evokes simplicity and an evangelical witness."

Father Lombardi also noted it was "beautiful that he asked the people to pray for him." Francis bowed after he asked the people to pray to God, so that God would bless him. Before greeting the faithful for the first time, Francis prayed before the Blessed Sacrament.

 

Pro-Life, Pro-Family

Cardinal Bergoglio was known to be vibrantly pro-life, describing the pro-abortion movement as a "culture of death," using the term coined by the man who made him a cardinal in 2001, Pope John Paul II. He opposed the free distribution of contraceptives in Argentina, staunchly defended the rights of the poor and chastised material inequality — he would frequently visit the slums in Buenos Aires — and spoke out strongly against same-sex "marriage."

In 2010, he firmly opposed a bill giving same-sex couples the opportunity to marry and adopt children, saying it will "seriously damage the family" should it be approved. He made the statement in a letter addressed to each of the four monasteries in Argentina, asking the contemplatives to pray "fervently" that legislators be strengthened to do the right thing.

"At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children," he wrote. "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."

The new Pope will face many competing concerns, not the least of which is the increase in secularism. He will also have to confront the sexual-abuse crisis and the possibility that more cases will come to light in countries that have so far escaped notice.

But as head of the Jesuit province in Argentina from 1973 to 1979, he acquired a reputation for being a tough administrator and for "cleaning house" — something the cardinal electors are likely to have noted in their deliberations, in light of the need to reform the Roman Curia.

Speaking to the Register in St. Peter’s Square just after the white smoke appeared, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, one of the three cardinals to head the commission of enquiry into Vatileaks, made the point that it is Christ who ultimately guides the Church, but it was his "great hope" that the new Vicar of Christ will set about reforming the Curia.

 

Other Challenges

Pope Francis will also have to face a host of other challenges, such as protecting and promoting religious freedom in the Middle East, India and China, not to mention conscience rights in the United States and Europe.

In his own Latin America, he will have to contend with the loss of Church members to Pentecostal sects. In Africa and Asia, where the Church is expanding rapidly, he will face the challenges of the effects of poverty, globalization and inculturation.

On the ecumenical front, the new Pope can be expected to continue work on improving relations with the Orthodox, Anglicans and Jews, while continuing Benedict XVI’s work in interreligious dialogue, particularly with Islam, all the while bolstered by prayers of hundreds of millions of the faithful.

Given all the challenges that lay ahead, it is perhaps fitting he chose the name of the saint whom Christ urged, "Rebuild my Church."