First Impressions of Pope Francis
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, an Argentinean of Italian immigrant parents, embodies the globalisation of Catholicism. Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, mirrors both the wealthy and secular North and the poor but religious South. Its Church combines, often uneasily, radical progressive thinking with traditionalism.
Bergoglio as a Jesuit, and later as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, is a product of such contradictions. Seen by many fellow Jesuits as conservative (indeed in some areas archconservative), his life and ministry has been marked by a commitment to the poor expressed in a personal lifestyle that rejected the accoutrements of office (priesthood and episcopacy) in favour of simplicity. He was a commuter on buses and trains to work in both offices, like many or most of the poorer Portenos [citizens of Buenos Aires]. He was fierce in his criticism of policy that further widened the distance between rich and poor Argentineans.
Granted, as some note, he was less than vocal when the fascist dictatorship that reigned from 1976 to 1983 killed many on the left, including clergy. He did not denounce the detention and torture of two Jesuits by the military, but worked behind the scenes for their release. Some might call that collaboration; others might regard it as pragmatism during what any reasonable observer of Argentine politics might say was a tormented and divided time in the country’s history. (And, yes, both Jesuits were released).
Progressive Catholics might also object that his thinking (theological and political) has been cautious, even conservative, but we must ourselves acknowledge a principle in Jesuit formation – to try to give the best interpretation to others’ actions before we rush to overhasty condemnation. (And of course to remember that even those we might loathe in aspects of their thinking or practice are deserving of Christian love as a brother in Christ).
What have we seen in the last hours and days? I can speak only for myself. I saw on that Roman balcony a humble man, dressed in the white robes of baptism, who only assumed the symbols of office (the stole – originally a sign of Roman governorship) when it was appropriate to his role as pastor.
I saw a man who spoke first to the people of Rome, as one would expect of one elected bishop of Rome (a job that history has extended to leadership of the western Catholic Church), with warmth and humility. I saw a pastor who had the good grace to say to those gathered in miserable weather first of all “Good evening”.
As Shakespeare observed, what’s in a name like Francis? As a Jesuit I think of Francis Xavier, great missionary and companion of Ignatius Loyola, or Francis Borgia, who led and renewed the Jesuits. For most the name is associated with Francis of Assisi, who set out to renew a Church drowning in opulence and corruption, to reform it from within, by love, simplicity and service. Could this be the vision of Pope Francis for us? I hope so.