Habemus papam – We have a pope. And his name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
The Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a bishop past the retirement age of 75, has assumed the mantle of Peter.
Like John XXIII, Cardinal Bergoglio, the first priest of the Society of Jesus to be elected pope, appears to have embodied the salient features of liberation theology in his long ministry: deep compassion for the poor, simplicity of living, prioritizing of justice and mercy, and pastoral openness.
The truncated papacy of John Paul I – 33 days – has in some way been revitalized with Cardinal Bergoglio’s ascendency. With the easy smile of Albino Luciani (John Paul) and the easy manner of Angelo Roncalli (John XXIII), he seems fitted for the job.
The Roman Church has its first papal Francis.
The first pontiff from the Americas and a man who has demonstrated an uncommon but much welcome simplicity of living, Francis I is neither young nor inexperienced. He’s a youthful septuagenarian, a cleric with considerable curial exposure who’s not a professional curialist, a Jesuit with a Franciscan sensibility, a native Argentine of Italian heritage, a theological and moral conservative with a passion for social justice.
A former seminary rector and Jesuit provincial, he has a German and not Roman/pontifical doctorate. And that means something for academicians. He has had a typical Jesuit formation, and it will stamp his papal personality as ineradicably as Polish Marian devotions did John Paul II and Bavarian piety did Benedict XVI.
He will change the papacy by changing the tone; there will be no radical departures from doctrine, polity and convention. But he will bring a breath of fresh air to the stale and scandal-drenched corridors of the Vatican; he will generate hope in the hope-starved, and he will foster an expansiveness of spirit that will soften the critical stand of those who have despaired of the papacy’s capacity to move into the 21st century.
Francis will help reconfigure the papacy for this century. The Petrine ministry is a ministry of unity, a teaching ministry, a ministry of love and leadership. But how it’s to be exercised must change if it’s to avoid being simply a bit of splendid ecclesiastical theatre, a panorama of ritual and tradition that makes for stunning eye candy but little in the way of strengthening institutional credibility.
Francis could move the institution by sheer dint of his personal preference for evangelical simplicity. The Renaissance – and earlier – trappings of court, the gestures, vesture, modes of address and customary etiquette of deference to office and rank must be modified. Not because history and ceremony don’t matter; they do. We need drama of this nature to feed our aesthetic and spiritual hunger. But when the atmosphere that pervades the operation conforms to the reality of a different time, when the rarified world of Vatican life becomes normative, we have problems that compromise authentic witness.
Francis can begin to change that, and in so doing – a change of style and tone – usher in some of the reforms of Curia life that have become a papal priority.
Francis is from a deeply Catholic country that has tasted years of internal strife, the shame of a lost war against Britain, the horror of the disappeared, a political cult of the personality (Eva Peron), military dictatorships, an economic collapse of great magnitude, resurgent anti-Semitism, and extraordinary growth, democratic enthusiasm, and leadership under a charismatic president.
This is the Catholic world out of which Francis emerged. It shaped him as indelibly as his Ignatian training.
He is actually Francis + – the mendicant of simple living from Assisi and the Jesuit missionary from Spain known as Xavier. The poverello and the evangelist.
And we will see both influences in the leadership to come, a leadership that reminds us that the Smiling Pope has depth.
Michael W. Higgins, CTV’s papal commentator and papal blogger (Papal Musings), is vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
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