Pope Francis Knows What Must Be Done

 Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus Papam: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.

The stunned silence in the second or two after the announcement from the central balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica spoke volumes. No one was expecting the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to be named the immediate successor of Pope Benedict XVI and the 265th successor of Saint Peter. Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, the first Jesuit to be elected pope and the first pope from the Americas, had been mentioned on various lists of papabile but universally dismissed as too old. Never mind that he is two years younger than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was in 2005, and, by all accounts, in better health than Ratzinger was in then (let alone than Benedict is in now). The conventional wisdom was that the Catholic Church “needed” a younger, stronger, more vibrant pope—which, in the minds of secular journalists and pundits, meant a pope who would change with the times.

Indeed, a New York Times/CBS News poll, released on March 6, “push-polled” American Catholics: “Which comes closer to what you’re looking for in the next Pope? 1. Someone younger with new ideas OR 2. Someone older with more experience.” (It does not seem to have occurred to the pollsters that those cardinals most likely to endorse what the Times considers “new ideas” are, in fact, among the oldest.) And in the wake of Cardinal Bergoglio’s election, the Gray Lady’s headline editors could not hide their disappointment: “Argentine Pope Will Make History, but Backs Vatican Line.” Who would have guessed that the new pope would be a Catholic?

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Flag_of_Vatican_CityThe answer would be anyone who understands the Catholic Church (which, sadly, includes a decreasing number of Catholics). The election of this particular man took me by surprise (I had given Angelo Cardinal Scola, the archbishop of Milan, better than even odds), but the election of this kind of man did not.

The media had a narrative prepared: Here are all the ways in which the new pope is different from Pope Benedict XVI. But the announcement of Cardinal Bergoglio’s election left them twisting in the wind. He’s old; he’s morally and doctrinally conservative; he’s not going to remake the Catholic Church in the image of Barack Obama.

And that’s precisely the point. Despite the claims of both ultratraditionalists and doctrinal and moral libertines, the Church today, in her core, is what she has always been and always will be. Since John XXIII threw the windows open, the Church’s curtains may have been torn by the wind and faded by the sun, but Christ’s promise to the first pope has protected His Church from the kind of harm that the modern world would so desperately love to inflict on her.

The fact that Pope Francis is, in a word, Catholic does not, however, guarantee that he will be effective in either governance or evangelization. There are, I think, signs that he knows what needs to be done. Every cardinal-elector who entered the conclave understands why Pope Benedict thought that a man with more strength was needed in the office. And while Pope Francis’s first words to the world were brief and spoken softly in impeccable Italian, they carried within them a note of foreshadowing: “My hope is that this journey of the Church that we begin today … may be fruitful for the evangelization of this beautiful city.”

The evangelization of Rome—or of Vatican City itself? The words may have been deliberately ambiguous, as was Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of Francis as his papal name. The media, both Catholic and secular, assumed, because of his well-known concern for the poor, that he was hearkening back to Saint Francis of Assisi. And perhaps he was; Timothy Cardinal Dolan claims that Cardinal Bergoglio explicitly stated so after his election. But Saint Francis was hardly the Dr. Dolittle of the popular imagination. Christ Himself told him to “Go and rebuild my Church, which you can see has fallen into ruin,” and the Franciscan order remains a strong force in the Holy Land today because of Francis’s own attempt, in 1219, to convert the sultan of Egypt or win the crown of martyrdom in the process.

It is likely, however, that Cardinal Bergoglio was also invoking the memory of St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit order, whose legacy of evangelization is reflected in Pope Francis’s brief words on the balcony of Saint Peter’s. (Francis Xavier, perhaps coincidentally, also hoped to convert the Muslims.)

And yet invoking Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier and possibly hinting at the cleanup of the Augean stables of the Roman Curia will all mean nothing if Pope Francis cannot govern more effectively than Pope Benedict did. On that question, the verdict is out. As Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in Argentina in the mid-1970’s, Bergoglio lost the support of the fellow members of his order as they moved to the left, and he was essentially marginalized by being named rector of the Society’s seminary in San Miguel. His ecclesiastical career might well have gone no further had it not been for the intervention of Pope John Paul II, who elevated him to bishop and later to cardinal.

As the archbishop of Buenos Aires and the president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Bergoglio has not shied away from confrontations with the left-wing Argentinean government over moral issues, while at the same time presenting the Church’s social teaching as an alternative both to the depredations of capitalism and the materialism of liberation theology. On abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and contraception, Bergoglio has been a tireless advocate of the Church’s moral teaching, though he has lost many political battles, most famously in his opposition to homosexual adoption, which he declared “a form of discrimination against children.” While Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner denounced his words as flowing from “medieval times and the Inquisition,” his strong stand increased his support among his fellow Argentinean bishops and the faithful of his country.

And that moral courage led to an important stamp of approval that may well have affected the outcome of the conclave. On February 23, 2013, in one of his final acts as pope, Benedict XVI appointed Cardinal Bergoglio to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. It’s a sign of the respect that Benedict holds for his successor and an indication that the two may well be closer than the stories of their rival candidacies in the 2005 conclave would suggest. For Americans who are used to holding their noses and voting every four years for the lesser of two evils, it may be hard to imagine, but it is entirely possible that, in the 2005 conclave, the cardinal-electors were faced with the choice of the greater of two goods. (Indeed, in one version of events, Cardinal Bergoglio supported the candidacy of Cardinal Ratzinger, and begged those supporting him to stop doing so, thus paving the way for Benedict’s election.)

In the end, the significance of Francis’s papacy may depend very little on what he accomplishes, or fails to accomplish. Benedict did not succeed in cleaning the Augean stables, yet it is already clear to everyone but the New York Times that history will regard him as one of the Church’s better popes. Francis’s election signals a new era in the Church—though not, as some had hoped, an era of the Americas, and in particular of the United States. Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, an Argentine who is nonetheless a full-blooded Italian, is as close to the perfect bridge between the rapidly fading European era of the Church and the rising era of the global south as the cardinal-electors were likely to find. The plurality of the world’s Catholics today reside in Latin America, and the simple fact of Francis’s papacy will give the Church in Latin America the kind of shot in the arm that John Paul II’s papacy gave to the Church in Poland.

And that, in the end, can only be good for all of Christendom, including the Europe of which Rome remains the symbolic heart, and the Rome which itself clearly lies close to the heart of Pope Francis:

You all know that the duty of the Conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone almost to the ends of the earth to get him … but here we are.


  • Scott P. Richert

    Scott P. Richert is publisher for Our Sunday Visitor and Editor at Large for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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