(I promised Jeff that I’d finally write something for the blog again. This is not a careful analytical piece, just my first take on the new pope.)
For the moment, I am won over by Pope Francis–I was hoping for a non-European pope, but I never expected such an unusual figure. The first Jesuit pope! The first pope to choose the name Francis! And what an exciting, markedly different style from the one to which we have become accustomed.
Why have I become almost giddy over this pope, with a momentary gleefulness that is likely to be tempered by some bad news or other in the days to come? Ought I not to be tamer and more sensible and scrutinize his record more carefully? I will eventually, eventually. But not today. Today, I am happy, because a new thing is happening, and it seems like a good thing.
Maybe it was just hearing the enthusiastic peal of bells from the local Newman Center across the street from my apartment complex, racing over and wanting to be part of something, and watching impatiently to see what mysterious figure would emerge from behind that curtain (while praying, to be honest, “Please not Dolan…”). (I did not tell that to the nice fellow sitting next to the me in the parish office, who was rooting for Cardinal Dolan.) Maybe it was the enthusiastic faces of the crowds, with their earnest chanting and praying and singing, who could care less about the rain, and the solemn procession of the Swiss Guard, their helmets glinting in the bright lights.
Or something more? Maybe it was his humble, surprisingly demure, almost casual welcome, engendering memes like this one:
I must admit that I knew nothing about Bergoglio before his appointment as pope. Yet now I have a pope who insists on dressing in the simplest of garments, rides the bus with the other cardinals instead of driving the fancy car reserved for him, returns to the hotel to check himself out rather than sending some underling to do it for him. He rode the bus like everybody else in Argentina, and he’ll be darned if anybody will tell him he has to travel in style now that he’s pope. His simplicity and his choice of the name Francis suggest compassion for the “least of these” and a commitment to rebuilding/reforming the Church that is in ruins, as St. Francis was called to do. The pope’s anti-clerical side will serve him well in the important and difficult work of responding to the sex abuse scandals.
Here is a pastoral pope. His demeanor is that of a humble servant, not a scholar, king, or judge. One isn’t sure whether he’d be good at solving some difficult doctrinal dispute (though he is an intellectual, like all Jesuits), yet one feels that one could confess to him or seek his counsel.
Lots of people (mostly people who don’t understand the current state of Catholicism very well) are labeling Bergoglio a “conservative.” If they mean that he opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, then he is “conservative,” but that is a relatively useless way to categorize him (as a Commonweal blogger pointed out), since that’s frankly all of the cardinals. Major changes on issues of sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc. were never on the table in this conclave. Even if one finds all of the options unpleasing, one should still acknowledge differences between the papabile, as the Catholic hiearchy is far from uniform. Theologically speaking, Francis is more moderate than his predecessor, Benedict XVI. He is open to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue (not that Benedict was not, but Francis is perhaps more so), and Francis’s views on the liturgy are noticeably more liberal. Those who have been yearning for a return to the principles of Vatican II might get their wish. And he seems “collegial.” Noted liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, by the way, is pleased with this pope and has countered claims that Bengoglio supported the right-wing military junta in Argentina.
On economic issues, although he was critical of liberation theology and Marxism, Bergoglio has challenged neoliberalism and spoken out against the crippling burdens of debt imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank upon third world countries. Like his predecessor, Pope Francis is likely to criticize unbridled capitalism, and one can hope that he will challenge austerity with vehemence and determination.
Whatever disagreements I may end up having with him, I love him for asking the people for our blessing before giving his own, for riding the bus to work, for kissing the feet of AIDS patients, for scolding uptight priests who refused to baptize babies for not having been born into the “right” kind of families. Yes, probably he should have spoken out and risked his safety during the dirty war, but if he lacks the moral courage of a martyr, at least he seems to have sympathy for the poorest and least. After the lights dim a bit and the Swiss guard put all their sparkly helmets back on the shelf, perhaps I’ll be more critical. For the moment, it doesn’t seem to take a lot to make me really happy.
(photo credit: http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/pope-francis-on-liturgy-ii/)