Recently, I encountered a friend on the sidewalk in front of her house. “We have a pope,” she said; smiling big. “About two hours ago. He’s from Argentina.” We chatted a bit more about the new pope. I was intrigued. My friend is not Catholic, and rarely attends church. Yet she obviously was pleased about the news, and felt included in it. The next day I had occasion to speak with another friend, a nun of the Daughters of Charity. “Well,” I said, “you have a new pope.” (I’m a slow learner.) “The world has a new pope,” she said emphatically.
The elevation of a new pope is indeed an event important to the whole world. He represents more than the head of the Roman Catholic Church. He represents the Christian faith, as the most elevated and influential Christian on Earth. So the persona of the pope is looked upon with intense interest everywhere as he steps onto the balcony at the Vatican to greet the throng gathered there to receive him.
Who is this man, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, standing there blessing the throng of the faithful in St. Peter’s Square? He is a groundbreaker. He is the first Jesuit ever to be named pope. He is the first pope from Latin America, the first non-European pope ever. And he is the first ever to adopt the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis I. His choice is revealing.
St. Francis gave up great wealth, became poor, and went among the poor, the sick, the outcasts to minister to them as one of them.
Pope Francis is a man with a well-earned reputation for being a humble man of the people. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he eschewed the archbishop’s palace to live in a rented apartment. He did his own shopping and cooked his own meals. He rode the bus to work. He was out and about among the people. He championed the poor. He considers social outreach to be the essential business of the church. As pope, his first act was to go off and pray by himself. Then he told the cardinals, all lined up for their turn to greet him, they would have to wait. The people were waiting. “Let’s not keep them waiting,” he said. When all the ceremony and celebrating was over, the cardinals piled onto waiting buses to return to the lodgings where they were billeted. The Papal limousine awaited Francis. He ignored the limo, walked to one of the buses and climbed aboard.
These are announcements of a sort. They communicate a determination to downplay the worshipful pomp and the isolation that accompanies it, to stay connected with others. This is consistent with the Jesuit tradition, one of simple unadorned life-style, deliberately never seeking elevation to higher office. Standing on the balcony in a white robe, he said to the multitude, “The work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome. It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth, but here we are. Thank you for the welcome.” With these words, he made clear he had not sought the office, but was in a way picked out of the crowd, the most unlikely of choices.
A day into his papacy, Pope Francis made his first public address. He spoke some truly prophetic and electrifying words: “We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church. It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street and a church that’s sick because it’s self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former.“