First Thoughts on Pope Francis

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Yesterday, on my way to spend some time in adoration in the University’s Benet Chapel, I heard the bells of Annunciation Monastery pealing. Then my cell phone went off with a text from indicating white smoke, informing me Habemus Papam. A gang of young people began making their way to the Cove, a snack shop, where the TV was on, tuned to the events happening at St. Peter’s.

And so about eighty of us (I’m guessing) sat and stood glued to the TV, waiting to see who would be the new Pope. A lot of good excitement. And then the announcement: It was hard to make out, and the closed-captioning wasn’t helping either. After some moments, we figured out it was some guy named Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Huh? Bergoglio?

Few of us who have been tracking the conclave were expecting this man; smart money was on Scola or perhaps Ranjith as a longer shot, or Schönborn, as well as several others. But we learned again there is no such thing as smart money when it comes to a conclave.

And so Bergoglio becomes Pope Francis.

Huh? Francis?

No pope has been named Francis. Especially a Jesuit.

Huh? A Jesuit?

And Pope Francis, Jesuit Argentine, appeared on the balcony in simple white garb, eschewing more decorative elements of papal gear.

Everything popes do is deliberately semiotic; the names popes are suggestive, as is their dress. Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia, brilliant in such matters, claimed it was designed to evoke John Paul I, whose pontificate lasted all of 33 days before God took him. (Through the agency of murderous Jesuits, if conspiracies are to be entertained; *ahem*.)

Francis in simple garb. Here’s what I think, which is what many think:

St Francis of Assisi was called to “rebuild My Church, which is in ruins” and lived a life of simplicity. Perhaps Pope Francis intends to be a reformer of the church through simplicity (he’s not curial, and some years ago declined a major curial appointment, and his own personal simplicity is becoming legendary already), and an evangelizer along the lines of St. Francis, which involves deep friendship with Christ. Let’s not also forget Bergoglio’s longstanding commitment to the poor.

After the announcement, in some quarters much whining commenced, seeing his election as a repudiation of Benedict XVI’s programmes, especially as regards liturgy. Bergoglio, it is reported by some, has not been a fan of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, but it’s not at all apparent that Bergoglio hindered the EF in his archdiocese; it appears he did indeed make provision for it under Summorum Pontificum.

But I think this whining is wrongheaded, especially for those who would be faithful Catholics. Sandro Magister, a Vaticanista many trust, in a piece well worth reading, reports, “In the conclave of 2005…Bergoglio was one of the most decisive supporters of the appointment of Joseph Ratzinger as pope.” And many of the Cardinal Electors were chosen by Benedict himself.

I don’t think we need to worry about Benedict’s legacy, for many reasons. First, I doubt very much Pope Francis is interested in totally derailing the train of liturgical renewal Benedict set in motion. Many young priests and seminarians and not a few bishops were and are profoundly influenced by Benedict’s liturgical vision and see the necessity of reverent liturgy, whether OF or EF, and they will continue the renewal. We don’t need any more papal or conciliar documents on liturgy, after (for instance) Sacrosanctum Concilium, Ecclesia de mysterio, Sacramentum Caritatis, and Summorum Pontificum. We need bishops, priests, and laity to implement what they say. The ball’s in our court.

Second, we’ve had two genius popes since 1978. John Paul II was brilliant in philosophy, and Benedict XVI was brilliant in theology. But that’s often been the exception. I think Bergoglio is incredibly smart (read this!), but he’s not an academic. What this means is the intellectual groundwork laid by his two predecessors will continue to bear fruit for decades as young bishops, priests, philosophers, and theologians continue to wrestle with it, be formed by it, and present it.

I don’t see Bergoglio as any sort of compromise choice, a way to “kick the can down the road” as one despondent tweeter said on Twitter:

Again, Sandro Magister:

[Bergoglio] is also a man who knows how to govern. With firmness and against the tide. He is a Jesuit – the first to have become pope – and during the terrible 1970’s, when the dictatorship was raging and some of his confrères were ready to embrace the rifle and apply the lessons of Marx, he energetically opposed the tendency as provincial of the Society of Jesus in Argentina.
He has always carefully kept his distance from the Roman curia. It is certain that he will want it to be lean, clean, and loyal.
He is a pastor of sound doctrine and of concrete realism. To the Argentines he has given much more than bread. He has urged them to pick the catechism back up again. That of the ten commandments and of the beatitudes. “This is the way of Jesus,” he would say. And one who follows Jesus understands that “trampling the dignity of a woman, of a man, of a child, of an elderly person is a grave sin that cries out to heaven,” and therefore decides to do it no more.

Similarly, another Vaticanista many trust, Andrea Tornielli, reported that at the 2005 conclave a reform-minded Cardinal said, “Four years of Bergoglio would be enough to change things.”

Bergoglio has been resolute on issues of governance, on doctrine, on issues of culture and sexuality. I think he intends to clean up our Church, fallen into ruins, and hold the line on many evils threatening not just the Church but the human race itself. I suspect we have a faithful, orthodox reformer. Time will tell, and you never know whom a conclave will select, or what a new Pontiff will do in office. (Remember the compromise pope, John XXIII, calling the Second Vatican Council?)

Personally, I’m excited. I’m excited to see where Francis will lead us. Each pope has his own gifts, his own initiatives, and his own crises. This pope, our beloved Francis, will now lead us, and we the faithful will continue exercising our ministry of the baptized in all its various dimensions. Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus papam!

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