Pope Francis declared that his new name came to him in a last-minute divine flash of inspiration. First from the Americas, first Jesuit, first Pope named Francis… from the first moment that he acted in his new position, Jorge Mario Bergoglio exhibited his willingness to be different from the previous Popes. He did not wear the traditional papal vestments or the ostentatious red shoes… he rode the bus with the cardinals instead of his limousine and then he dressed himself with the cardinals prior to his first Mass in the Sistine Chapel. Our own Timothy Cardinal Dolan lightly joked about that: ”He’s in the locker room with the guys before the game.”
Msgr. Guido Marini, the Vatican’s master of liturgical ceremonies, already surprised by the Pope’s refusal to wear the formal papal red cape on his first public showing, will have a lot to handle with Pope Francis, who surely will keep on surprising him with his impromptu informal actions. It seems that Francis intends to be a pontiff of the people, unlike the scholarly Benedict XVI, who appeared most at ease with books than with people and was impressed by the traditional ceremonial extravagances that were connected to the papacy.
But who is this humble man who came from “the most unequal part of the world,” as he once called Latin America, to take such an important position in such a delicate historical moment?
Born in 1936, son of a railway worker from Torino who had emigrated to Argentine, Bergoglio lost a lung to an infection as a teenager and studied to be a chemist. After the completion of his studies, God called on him and he joined the priesthood, becoming a Jesuit. It was a dangerous period in his country and he chose to keep fully immersed in religious life, unlike many other Jesuits known for their activism. This choice has already raised some unwarranted questions regarding his piety. They have been easily silenced, but with time they certainly will be picked up by the lovers of the “conspiracy theories”.
Time magazine has declared that Bergoglio “has links to a somewhat controversial Italian movement called Comunione e Liberazione, which pursues activism through conservative religious engagement with the secular world”. On the other hand, he has a lot of experience as an antagonist to the rough-on-the-edge civilian rulers in his country. He can be described as a conservative member of the Society of Jesus ̶ commonly called Jesuits ̶ the largest religious order in the Catholic religion and one with many liberal and sometimes controversial members; an order which promotes social justice and ecumenical dialogue and that is known the world over for its schools, colleges and universities.
For those who questioned the election based on his age, it is important to note that Pope John XXIII was 77 when elected in 1958, and he turned out to be one of the best and most productive Popes in history, calling for the Second Vatican Council, which brought important, if not essential changes to the Church, allowing it to progress into the 20th century.
He told the daily La Stampa,”We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church;” we therefore hope that Pope Francis will be, as the Daily News suggested, “less judgmental on same-sex unions”, maybe open up to the possibility of women priesthood, and certainly talk honestly about the disgrace of pedophilia, which has corrupted the Church within by the apparent inaction of its leaders.
On the day of his installation, he asserted that “To protect creation, to protect every man and woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope… Today, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others.”
He appealed to the people in power to assist “The poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick and those in prison…” and received a loud applause when he called upon the Catholics to avoid the “omens of destruction ̶ hatred, envy and pride.”
Pope Francis, the first Pope who started his pontificate acceptance by saying in Italian “Buona sera”, instead of speaking Latin, and asked the crowd to bless him, almost as if it was an anointment from the people, may be the best thing that this Church and this world has seen or even dreamt of in a long while. Let’s hope so and wish him well on his spiritual work ahead.