Father Sibley’s First Thoughts on the New Pope
All day long, people have been asking me for my thoughts about the new Holy Father, Pope Francis I (née Jorge Mario Bergoglio). It’s been quite a hectic day for me (apart from the election of a new Pope), so I am finally able to sit down and type up a few thoughts. Not sure what sort of insights I will be able to offer, especially with as exhausted as I am, but I will give it my best shot.
- Just like most everyone else, I was shocked when the name surname “Bergoglio” was pronounced by Cardinal Tauran. Like so many, I was expecting to hear Scola, Ouellet, Ravasi, O’Malley, or even Dolan. But obviously, the Holy Spirit had other plans. Indeed, in his choice of fishermen as the first apostles, Christ chose the individuals others would least expect to be leaders of his Church. Christ has a habit of confounding the worldly wise! These other Cardinals seemed to many from both within and without the Church, to be the most “logical” possible successors of John Paul II and Benedict, but the Cardinals were inspired in a different direction. It’s humbling to realize how easy it is for us, even as faithful Catholics, to think we know what is best for the Church. How our ways are not God’s ways! (I will admit I was pulling for Ouellet because he directed my thesis, and I thought it would be neat to be able to say that the Pope directed my thesis).
- I can imagine the shock was similar to what so many throughout the world must have felt when the name “Wojtyla” was first pronounced in 1978. Who was this cardinal from Poland? I’m sure it left many speechless and scratching their heads; but in hindsight, experts say, the choice was obvious. Even though he was the supposed “runner-up” to Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave, many counted Bergoglio out because of his age. But as Sandro Magister wrote today, people weren’t paying attention to the fact that his name had gotten more traction among the Cardinals during the final days before the Conclave – and that he actually supported Ratzinger’s election in that conclave, and that against his own will, his name was put forward by those who wanted to block Ratzinger’s nomination. (Update: Actually, John Thavis called it before the conclave began).
- What is the significance of the name “Francis?” We’ll find out soon enough, but my guess it primarily refers to Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary, with an intentional nod to il poverello, St. Francis of Assisi. Being the first Pope from the “New World” Francis Xavier would be an obvious reference to the importance of the Church’s missionary activity. But noting the stories of the simplicity of the Pope’s life when he was Cardinal of Buenos Aires, and even of his first papal appearance, it speaks of the evangelical witness of poverty that continues to make Francis of Assisi the world’s most beloved saint. (Update: Sources are reporting that he chose the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. A Jesuit Pope named Francis. Irony).
- The media has been speaking a lot about his love and his compassion for the poor. But make no mistake about it, he is no Marxist and he has opposed liberation theology. But, his love for the poor should come as no surprise – it is at the heart of the gospel message. It is unfair though for people to compare him to John Paul II or Benedict XVI and somehow imply that they did not care for the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each Pope has an “emphasis” that he places on his pontificate – John Paul II focused on evangelization, Benedict on teaching, and quite possibly Francis will focus on the social teaching of the Church – only time will tell. The teachings of the Church are multi-faceted, and the Spirit knows the ones upon which the Church, and her primary Shepherd, needs to focus their gaze.
- He is known for his gentle and humble spirit, but also for his orthodoxy. He is a strong defender of the right to life and the meaning and sanctity of sexuality marriage, even to the point of drawing the ire of the presidents of Argentina for his stance on these controversial topics. It’s pointless to hope that the Pope will “change” the Church’s stance on these issues. These are the dreams of a narcissistic culture that thinks the Church and the rest of the world must conform to it’s libertine and technocratic ideals.
- I spoke to a Jesuit friend of mine today who told me that while he was Jesuit provincial in Argentina in the 70′s he was known for his efforts to bring reform and to keep the province faithful to the original charism of the Order. As a result, he faced a fair amount of persecution, even among the Jesuits in Argentina. It is only conjecture, but this might be an argument in favor of his willingness, and ability, to bring reform to the Roman Curia. I also think having the first Jesuit Pope might be a great source of inspiration for an Order which in certain sections of the world has gained a reputation for rebelliousness and an unwillingness to obey the Magisterium of the Church. It is a powerful reminder that the spirit of Saint Ignatius of Loyola is still alive and strong (Update: this article confirms that he was a reformer in his province).
- I don’t think that we can underestimate the importance of having a Pope from Latin America – and not from Europe (and in particular not from Italy). It speaks clearly the real the reality that the Church is “Catholic” and global, and not confined to the contours of the West. At one time, when there was no “front-runner” the default choice might have been an Italian. Now, it is clear that those days are over – the Cardinals will choose the best man for the job, regardless of his nationality. And what a blessing for Argentina and Latin America! The Church in Latin America is alive and well – what a witness it will be to those critics who say that the Catholic Church is weak and fading away. I’ve seen the videos of celebrations in Latin America after a certain country’s team won a soccer match – I can only imagine what the party is like in Buenos Aires today!
- For those who pay attention to such things, Pope Francis made a couple of subtle but deliberate statements in his first appearance to the world today. Fr. Raymond de Souza, who was doing the commentary for EWTN explains: “How will he lead the Church? It is too early to tell, but he sent two clear signals last night, unmistakable to papal Rome. He appeared in the simple papal cassock, declining to wear the accompanying red shoulder cape that his predecessors have always worn. Benedict XVI’s preferred liturgical style thus did not survive the first minutes of the new pontificate. Additionally, he declined to use the term ‘pope emeritus’ for Benedict, referring to him instead as ‘bishop emeritus,’ thereby taking sides in a dispute within the Vatican about what Benedict should be called. Small things? Yes, but deliberate choices from an experienced pastor.” He also proved himself quite capable of donning his own stole! Not sure what this says about his “liturgical style” – but it shows us that he has a mind and a will of his own.
- If you pay attention to his initial remarks, he only refers to himself as the “bishop of Rome,” not “Pope” or “Holy Father.” In addition, he directed most of his comments to the people and city of Rome. Of course, the Pope is the “Bishop of Rome,” but it seems obvious that he is trying to make a statement.
- There will be a lot written about the new Pope over the coming weeks. For good potential sources of information insights I’d look to these: Whosoever Desires (a great blog run by young, solid, Jesuits from the Southern Province), Sandro Magister (of course), Fr. Roger Landry, John Thavis, and Vatican Insider. I’m hoping that some of his writings will soon be translated into English.
- The image from today that struck me the most was him standing almost motionless staring at the sea of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square. I wonder what was going through his mind in those moments. Surely, he had some realization of the overwhelming task before him. Above all it is important for us to pray for Pope Francis. His is not an enviable task – he depends on our prayer and support!