G.K. Chesterton tells the story of the time that St. Francis of Assisi visited Rome and the pope of the day proudly showed him all the wondrous treasures of the Vatican. Referring to a story in the Biblical Book of Acts in which St. Peter spoke with a beggar in Jerusalem and told him he had no money, the pope pointed to the treasures around him and said, “Peter can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”
St. Francis’ response: “Neither can he say, ‘Rise up and walk.’” (In the Bible account, St. Peter first tells the crippled beggar that he doesn’t have any money, then he takes him by the right hand, tells him to get up and walk, and the man, cured, begins to walk and leap.) St. Francis’ point was that the triumphal, institutional church of his day was prestigious and wealthy, but it had lost the inner fire and dedication that made Christianity a world-transforming faith.
So now we have a Pope Francis, and we are about to see what he can make of the papacy, and whether the Catholic Church in his day will be able to rise up like the beggar and walk. In some ways, Francis was a typically canny choice by the oldest electoral college in the world. The choice of a Latin American, and the first non-European pope in more than a thousand years, made headlines around the world and galvanized many Catholics in developing countries where the Church is strong. But behind the drama is the cautious intelligence of an institution whose traditions stretch back to the times of the Caesars; with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, Latin America is the most European region in the whole global South. Argentina is the most European of Latin American countries, and Pope Francis, whose parents emigrated from Italy in the last century, is one of the Argentinians whose European roots are as strong and deep as they get.
It appears that, among other qualities, he is a compromise between those still nostalgic for the long Italian stranglehold on the papacy (Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian Bishop of Rome since 1523) and those who want a more globalized leadership in the Church. He is as Italian as a foreigner can be.
With all this, though, comes political baggage. Most Cardinals from Europe these days have not had to cope with the political monsters running loose in much of the world. The selection of Benedict XVI, who came of age in Hitler’s Reich, raised some eyebrows, but generally speaking most European prelates these days haven’t had to exercise their ministries in countries run by murderous thugs.
That isn’t the case with people from much of the developing world. Cuba’s bishops must somehow work with the Castros; the bishops of Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda and many other countries have had to make choices that people from stable and democratic places know little about. In Pope Francis’s case, he lived under the horrible Argentine military government of the 1970s when disappearances and torture were business as usual. Those of us who haven’t had to navigate those treacherous waters should be careful how we judge those whose experience has taken them through trials we cannot comprehend. Nevertheless, Pope Francis must expect that his record under Argentina’s dictatorship will be carefully combed through, and it is not impossible that a Buenos Aires government with little use either for him or for the Church will engage in selective leaks.
Francis straddles more than just geographical divides. Doctrinally, he is as tough minded as his predecessor. Those expecting a new pope to ordain women, bless abortion, and allow gay priests to marry in St. Peter’s must brace themselves for disappointment. But what we know of Francis’s ministry in Argentina suggests that he knows that in Christianity doctrine, important as it may be, is not the heart of the matter. Christianity at the end of the day is about God’s all-forgiving, all-embracing, illimitable love. Love is the chocolate, doctrine is the box and the point of the doctrine is to protect the chocolate and keep it fresh for use, not to separate people from the feast God wants us to share.
Francis famously attacked, for example, the practice of some Argentinian priests who put obstacles in the path of single mothers seeking to baptize their kids. The then Cardinal Bergoglio’s response was pretty much what one suspects Jesus himself would say. As the Telegraph reports:
“In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptise the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage,” Cardinal Bergoglio told worshippers last year.
“These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalize the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptised!”
Recognizing a young unwed mother as a moral hero because she doesn’t get an abortion won’t win Francis many points with those who think there can’t be too many abortions (especially among the poor) in this wonderful world of ours, but this is the kind of perspective the Catholic Church, and indeed any human community, badly needs. And if one consequence is that more pregnant young women find networks of support and solidarity as they choose to bring new life into the world, Via Meadia for one will think an important corner has been turned.
Francis is not just the first (sort of) non-European pope since the 8th century; he is also the first Jesuit ever in the position. For centuries Jesuits had the reputation of being the shock troops of the Church. Selected for intelligence, highly trained, tied to the Pope by a special oath of obedience, Jesuits were seen as a powerful, shadowy, and to some a frightening instrument of papal power.
That changed in more recent times. Jesuits were seen to be one of the more liberal orders in the Church, and under both Paul VI and John Paul II, relations between the Jesuits and the popes they were sworn to serve were sometimes quite frosty. (A Jesuit I knew was a font of “Polish Pope” jokes back in the days when John Paul II was trying to impose his will on the order. Sample: What do the letters TGIF, embroidered in golden thread on the new Pope’s slippers stand for? Answer: Toes Go In First.) Pope Francis’s election will be seen as a sign, among other things, that the Jesuits are back in the mainstream.
But it is also a sign that the Jesuits are no longer as powerful as they were. One reason no Jesuits were elected in the past was that many in the Church were concerned that the Order would become too powerful and that the close ties between a Jesuit pope and his brethren could overshadow other interests and other perspectives. Clearly, those issues have faded, perhaps in part because the last two popes were able to remodel the Society to bring it in closer harmony with the rest of the Church.
The third new thing about this pope is his name: there has never been a Pope Francis before. It’s an inspired choice. St. Francis of Assisi is the most popular Catholic saint outside the church (Mikhail Gorbachev is said to have a strong devotion to him), and in him we see the love of Christ overcoming the structures of the Church. He is a saint in whose life love visibly triumphed, for whom concern for the poor was more than an occasional hobby.
More than that, St. Francis turned his back on affluence and prestige. He renounced his inheritance, threw money in the street, and embraced “Lady Poverty” as his wife. The honest and purity of that choice resonates with many people inside and outside the Church. It’s a point of contact between the values of Catholicism and the contemporary world. St. Francis holds up a credible ideal for our time, an example that can speak powerfully to the values young people care about.
But he’s also a symbol of the opposition between Christian values and the tinselly values of the secular world. Materialism and the quest for prestige and power are the chief ends of life for many of our contemporaries. The contemporary world admires the virtues of St. Francis, but it cannot live up to them. That gap is where Christians must speak if they are to gain a hearing in these difficult times.
By choosing the name Francis as the first act of his reign, the Pope is challenging himself and his Church to radical renewal. It is a tough name to live up to. Will Pope Francis be able to say to the Church “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk?”
We shall see.
[Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]