Those first moments following the announcement were extraordinary – visually and historically. The new Pope was to be Francis, a name unprecedented in the long history of the papacy, and linked with the medieval saint of poverty and simplicity. When the figure in white appeared on the balcony, he was not wearing the traditional scarlet and ermine cape, a symbol of pontifical authority. Nor did he raise both arms (Benedict XVI wrung his hands above his head when elected). Pope Francis stood there, arms straight by his sides, and made a simple blessing with his right hand.
When he said, “Brothers and sisters …,” it came straight from the heart, and he broke tradition by asking the vast crowd to pray for his predecessor, then for himself, in silence. He did not sing his blessing – to the city and to the world – but spoke it. Here was a pope who seemed, from the outset, devout and inimical to triumphalism. Here was a pope of minimal, yet meaningful, gestures. He has charisma without the theatre.
As the news flashed around the world, there were sparse and telling details. This Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires had lived in a small apartment, cooked for himself and gone to his cathedral by bus. His father was a railway worker. He was 76, beyond the age at which bishops are expected to resign, and had lived since young manhood with just one lung. Was this the man to clean up the Vatican? To heal the divisions between the conservative and liberal wings of the Church? To take the Church beyond the disastrous era of clerical sexual abuse? And yet, the cardinals had chosen him with alacrity; and it was remembered that he had narrowly missed the papacy back in 2005.
The appeal to his brother cardinals of Jorge Mario Bergoglio clearly arises from a complex set of influences – indicating potential for reconciliation. He hails from Latin America, a continent beset with socio-economic problems; but his parentage is Italian, and he studied theology in Germany. He is of the South, yet he has deep roots in the North. He’s a Jesuit and, as such, a scholar, who rose to be rector of his seminary. Unlike his predecessor, he has been a pastoral figure, in touch with the deprived on a poor continent. He told his followers not to come to Rome to celebrate the election of a new pope, but to give the money to the needy.
As a Jesuit, he might have been identified with liberation theology, the left-wing Catholic movements that saw sin as rooted in unjust political structures. He counselled his brother Jesuits against espousing liberation theology with its Marxist-style “base communities.” He advocated leadership within traditional parishes, and emphasized the need for holiness over altering political structures.
All the same, he has been notably committed to the alleviation of poverty through redistribution of wealth. “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” he said in 2007. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”
Since the 1970s, he has been associated with the Catholic organization Communion and Liberation, an ardent worldwide group much loved by John Paul II. The Catholic liberal wing and the Jesuits have been antipathetic to the cielinni, as they are known, disliking their mass rallies and enthusiastic evangelism. Yet, being a Jesuit, Francis might just act as a bridge between these two great forces in the Church.
Having spent his years as a bishop and the cardinal archbishop among his people, he has been a Vatican outsider, although he’s sure to know its ways and its problems. In the closing days of Benedict’s papacy, rumours of corruption and financial malfeasance had swirled around the Holy See. An investigation had been ordered by Benedict, for the sight of the new pope’s eyes only. Since his resignation, all the senior posts have fallen vacant. Francis has a good opportunity to make changes to root and branch. At his age, and being an outsider, he will find it difficult to be a Vatican reformer. Yet, having worked on the far periphery of the Church, he may create an impetus to long-overdue decentralization.
He has staunchly opposed abortion and same-sex marriage. In 2010, he was rebuked by Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for attacking adoption by gay partners. He has shown compassion for the victims of HIV-AIDS, yet he’s known to be strongly orthodox against artificial contraception. This may create difficulties ahead if he emphasizes sexual and life ethical issues over the realities of poverty, injustice and violence.
I liked the look of Francis on the balcony. His simplicity, his pastoral experience far from the Roman centre of power, together perhaps with a Jesuit flare for subtlety, may enable him to pull off the squaring of many circles, the healing of much antagonism within the Catholic Church. Above all, he appears untainted by the corrosive influence of the clerical sexual abuse scandal.
We are clearly not in for a long papacy; and if Francis follows the example of his predecessor, he may well resign before age catches up with him. What’s certain is that the Church’s centre of gravity has shifted toward the Americas, where the majority of Catholics now flourish and continue to multiply.
John Cornwell, a fellow of Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, is best known for his books on the papacy, most notably Hitler’s Pope. His most recent book is Newman’s Unquiet Grave.