Could Pope Francis be the new John XXIII?
As usual the experts got it exactly wrong. Don’t cry for me Argentina, indeed. After a lot of drama and more than a touch of theatre, a diffident, possibly slightly traumatised Pope Francis I emerged blinking on the balcony of St Peter’s. For a while it seemed as if he wouldn’t speak, then slowly and gently he smiled and in a low voice greeted the people of his new diocese, Rome.
Little wonder than the occasion seemed to get to him. He’s 76, a long way from home, as he mentioned, and his life will be completely transformed. Nobody (and certainly not himself) believed that he wouldn’t be using his return ticket to Argentina.
His appointment was totally unexpected. He was never included in dispatches. No one had mentioned him as a possibility. And suddenly this low-key figure emerged from the shadows with everyone asking, Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?
A God of surprises?
Eight years ago, when (with a greater flourish than the cardinal-deacon was able to summon last night) the then cardinal had announced that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the new pope, my heart sank as I was convinced that God that the Holy Spirit had got it wrong. Nothing during his pontificate, apart probably from Benedict’s decision to retire, convinced me that I was wrong. More of the same – after the long pontificate of John Paul II – was what we didn’t need. Benedict XVI felt like Pius XII all over again.
Maybe Francis I is the new John XXIII. Around the same age, an unexpected appointment, an outsider brought in from the shadows. Just maybe the slight, diffident Argentinian might surprise us. Of course, we don’t know what we’re getting and it may well be the game the cardinals have so often played: an interim appointment, the equivalent of kicking the papal can down the road.
From the outside it looks like a failure to grasp the many nettles but then we believed John XXIII was an interim appointment, a ‘stop-gap pope’ who went on to transform the Catholic Church.
So what has Pope Francis 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. Whether he has the backbone or the energy or the stomach for tackling the vested interests in the Curia and the elderly cosseted courtiers that control the Church is another question.
A second positive note is the name Francis. He may well have the founder of the Jesuits in mind when he chose the name Francis but for most people there’s only one St Francis and the new pope seems to have something of that humility and gentleness and softness of the saint from Assisi. After all 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.
We could do with a ‘soft’ pope, a Francis, someone whose humanity would be as evident as the ‘firmness’ of the last two pontificates, though his hard-line stances on abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception would indicate a hard core beneath the soft exterior.
A third positive note is that he is from the Third World, where most of the Catholics of the world now live so we can expect a different emphasis from the recent papal obsession with Europe and hopefully a different style from the dogmatism of recent years. I hope that unlike John Paul he won’t want us all to become Poles (or Argentinians) and unlike Benedict he won’t be talking about ‘authentic Catholics”. I hope he’ll throw the cloak of belonging a little bit wider than his predecessors.
Pope Francis is also a Jesuit, who will be able to draw on the resources and acumen of an order of priests that has given extraordinary service to the Church. Jesuits, of course, come in all shapes and sizes but invariably they have great respect for what might be called a ‘robust approach’ to the intellectual life and a gift for pushing out boats in unexpected directions.
So what can we make of this 266th pope who presents as a quietly-spoken and humble man but from whom we expect so much and know so little? It is said that he was runner-up to Benedict at the last conclave and that he was considered a unifying figure between those who held the line against change – he was known not to be impressed by some of his liberal fellow-Jesuits – and those who wanted the Church to reform along Vatican Two lines. It will be interesting to see how he will respond to the growing conviction that things simply have to change in the Church, that we can’t go on the way we were. Not doing anything is no longer an option, even for a 76 year-old pope.
Hopefully, with Pope Francis I, the breath of the Spirit may be blowing in a different direction. God may well have surprised us.