The new pope gives good omens
When I saw Pope Francis emerging on the famous balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square and looking down silently on the 200,000 plus people, I thought of Pope John Paul I, the quiet Italian who lived about a month after his election as pope in 1978.
Pope Francis looked like a man who was traumatised, almost as if he was asking himself, How did I get myself into this? He was 76, a long way from home, he had a return ticket to Buenos Aires in his back pocket but now, by a quirk of fate or history, he would be a life-prisoner of the Vatican.
Even though it was known that he had come second to Benedict in the last papal election, he looked like a best man who found himself as an unlikely groom at a different wedding several years later and didn’t quite know if he wanted to be there.
At last he broke his silence and he smiled, a broad smile that reminded me of Pope John XXIII who smiled a lot. And then he spoke, almost just above a whisper as he greeted the people of his new diocese, Rome. And then he asked the people to pray for him as he led them in prayer. Simply. In silence. Then the Our Father. The Hail Mary.
It’s going to be difficult to predict what Francis I will be like. Because no one seems to know Jorge Mario Bergoglio. There was an embarrassing silence on the RTE television news after his name was announced because Bryan Dobson and the assembled experts obviously hadn’t a clue who he was. George who? Understandably because his appointment was totally unexpected. He was never included in dispatches. No one had even mentioned him as a possibility.
He’s a conservative, of course, as popes are. And he will be traditional, pressing the predictable buttons, as popes do. But his background is parish, not podium and there is some evidence that he was unhappy with Benedict’s approach, though he was careful to keep it to himself.
So the style will be different: more modest, less certain, more aware of human complexity, less dressing up, fewer dressing downs, fewer titles, less lace. Recently he described some of his own priests in Buenos Aires as in danger of becoming hypocrites because they refused to baptise the children of single mothers. Clearly Francis is not a man impressed with those who preach the rules without any sense of the human predicaments that limit their implementation. A good omen.
The early predictions are that Francis will be a unifier, a reconciler, a moderate as the pendulum swings back again towards the insights of the Second Vatican Council. We shouldn’t expect dramatic change, of course, but we’ve a very different pope now and, as important, a transformed church landscape. The unexpected and unprecedented retirement of Pope Benedict XVI has thrown a grenade into the centre of the Church, starting a debate about what the Church, with its many problems, needs to do now.
Attitudes can change quickly. A few years ago when the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) was founded, it was represented by some bishops, many priests, Catholic papers and very traditional Catholics as a nest of radicals intent on damaging the Church. A year later the Vatican Visitors spoke ominously about the corrosive effects of ‘dissidents’ in the Irish Church, and it was obvious who they meant.
This had the effect of copper-fastening on the ACP a reputation that was unwarranted and unfair. We were demonised because we were asking fundamental questions about the direction the Church has taken over the last two pontificates. And we were suggesting some fundamental changes. Like, for example, that a ‘collegial’ approach of church governance, which emanated from the Second Vatican Council – pope and bishops working together – should be given a fair wind.
Spool the tape on two years and, in the interregnum between the retirement of Benedict and the election of Francis, cardinals, bishops and media – even some of the Catholic press – are saying the same thing! Suddenly, it seems, the supposed ‘dissidents’ were right all along!
Maybe Francis I is the new John XXIII. Around the same age, an unexpected appointment, an outsider brought in from the shadows. The slight, diffident Argentinian might just surprise us. Of course, we don’t know what we’re getting and it may well be no more than the game the cardinals have so often played: an interim appointment, the equivalent of kicking the papal can down the road. Maybe it’s simply a refusal by the cardinals to grasp the nettle but then the cardinals thought John XXIII was an interim appointment, a ‘stop-gap pope’ who went on to transform the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis I has a lot going for him. For one thing he’s not from Rome. While he has had contact with the Vatican he’s from far enough away to have a realistic perspective on the shenanigans that will no doubt now begin to be unmasked. It will be interesting now to see if he has the backbone for tackling the vested interests in the Curia, now universally regarded as the first challenge of his pontificate. Will he bite the bullet?
The name Francis was an inspired choice. Not only does Pope Francis have something of the humility and gentleness and softness of the saint from Assisi but he has too a commitment to the poor as St Francis had. When he was made cardinal he told those who wanted to accompany him to Rome to stay at home and give the money to the poor. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires he chose to live in a small apartment rather than the archbishop’s palace, took the bus to work and cooked his own meals. This simple, prophetic lifestyle wasn’t a pose or a public relations stunt, it was a way of life. In Buenos Aires he was a man who seemed to prefer visiting the slums to mixing with the rich.
Following in the footsteps of the saint from Assisi, we can expect a quieter, more humble pope, who places a premium on serving the poor and tackling the injustices of society. He may also, like St Francis, be a reformer who comes from outside and has a clear view and a robust commitment to reform. But he will know that reform, of course, like charity starts at home, in Rome.
The first pope for thirteen centuries from outside Europe, the first Third World pope, the first Jesuit pope and the first Francis. It’s a lot of firsts but the last first – choosing the name Francis – may be the most significant of all.
For that and the chink of hope his election represents, we should give thanks. Deo gratias.