First, it was an incredible surprise on the timing. Not much more than a couple of hours (maybe it wasn’t even that long) before the white smoke I had just finished reading a blog by a church historian on how long some of these conclaves take to come to a decision. He was implying to not hold your breath. Well, he was wrong.
I was also surprised on who was picked. I had been researching the leading candidates, and I had settled on a few who I thought would be good picks: Cardinal Erdő from Hungary, Ouellet from Canada, Tagle from the Philippines, or even possibly Dolan from here in New York. Everyone was looking at candidates seventy or younger. Bergoglio was never mentioned as a leading candidate. He seemed to have come out of nowhere, though it’s now been mentioned he was a runner-up when Benedict XVI was elected in 2005. It was while sitting at my desk at work that I saw a headline come across of the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel, and therefore a Pope was selected. I switched on some video feed from the Vatican and I waited in anticipation like the rest of the world as to who the man was. Suddenly my boss comes into my office and we start talking work. He couldn’t see my computer screen and it was muted, so he didn’t know what was going on. After we finished talking I told him that they had selected a Pope and I was waiting to see who it was. He was interested. He’s Catholic too, though somewhat cynical, and he came over and had me put the sound up. We waited for a bit, and another person, another Catholic , came in and we three, me in my chair, the other two standing behind me, stared at the screen until the new Pontiff came out. What a surprise that the man selected, Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina, was 76 and he took the name of Francis.
First let me state some less profound, more emotional connections to the man. He’s from this side of the world! Who needs the Europeans! That’s tongue-in-cheek but it’s fantastic that the Pope comes from the New World side of the Atlantic. I probably would have been just as excited if he had come from Africa or Asia, though from the Americas is just a touch more special. Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci must have prayed a few extra Ave Marias for this to come about. ;) Next, he’s from Italian immigrants. I can certainly identify with that! In fact his middle name is the same as my father’s first. His father was a railway worker, the same with my great grandfather. Before he went into religious life the Holy Father was either a chemist or a chemical engineer (I’ve seen both and can’t verify which), earning a master’s degree, and after becoming a Jesuit went on to teach among other things literature. Hmm, an engineer (or a science background) with links to literature? There’s only one person I know with that combination, and I identify with him extremely well. :p Finally he takes the name of Francis, after Francis of Assisi, which I have always considered to be my personal patron saint since before pre-teen when I took the name as my confirmation name in his honor.
Another interesting fact is that he’s a Jesuit, a religious order, and it’s very rare for a Pope to be from one, and he’s the first from the Jesuits. The Jesuits are one of the intellectual arms of the Catholic Church, but the Jesuits have more of an evangelical bent than the others, and I think that’s significant. They don’t just teach; they persuade with rhetorical skill. Poet Gerard Manly Hopkins was a Jesuit priest and James Joyce was Jesuit trained. Given the slow secularization across western culture, the Cardinals picked a man trained to deliver sharp, disciplined argument. I also think this is in contrast to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. B16 was known as a deep, profound theologian, arguably the leading theologian of this age, even before he became Pope. Wikipedia lists 66 books under his name from before and during his Papacy. But B16 presented arguments as a scholar and, if you will, as an artist: full context, intricate logic, subtle connections, and rounded in a sort of beauty. While that might be good for the intellectual believer, and I certainly grew to love the man through his incredible illuminations, I don’t think the non-believer, or the lapsed Catholic, or even average person in the pew really contended with his thought. Jesuit persuasion is more of a disputation. It’s not artistic. Its thought is honed to clarity and it responds to the rebuttal by picking apart its fallacies. This will be more of an engaged counter to the philosophical Zeitgeist of our day. And I can it see already. On that first day on the balcony, he was radiating Francis of Assisi, simple and humble. But on the second day, he gave a homily reflecting his Jesuit mind in his first mass as Pope, and I caught it. The homily given was completely extemporaneous, no notes, no teleprompter, completely off the top of his head, in, mind you, his second language of Italian. But when you look at the translated transcript what you see is a central thesis that links the three biblical readings; then boom-boom-boom, three points that flesh out and substantiate the argument, and then builds toward a higher point from where he started, all in about eight paragraphs. Now that’s a trained mind.
The fact that he took the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi is most significant. No Pope has ever done that. It’s dramatic, stunning actually, especially when you realize that Francis of Assisi wasn’t even a priest but a deacon. That may be a first in itself too. What does the connection to Francis of Assisi signify? Several things actually. First simplicity. St. Francis was known as a most simple soul, a “fool for Christ,” living in the most rudimentary lodging, begging for meals, working only for a day’s wage, never saving any money, giving anything left over away. He eschewed planning, organizing, systematizing. The Friars Minor still try to live that way, though I don’t know how. (By the way, when I say above that I consider St. F of A as my personal patron saint it’s not because I’m of the same constitution; quite the contrary, he’s my opposite, and in order to be grounded I need to embrace him as counter ballast.) Second, St. Francis embraced and actually loved poverty, both his own poverty and those who lived in it. Pope Francis in his constant reference to the poor since the moment of his selection and in every public moment since seems to be completely focused on this. While this is nothing new for the Catholic Church, which happens to be the largest charitable organization in the world (hospitals, orphanages, homeless, destitute, developing countries, natural catastrophes, etc.), the impression the general public has is of opulence. Well, 1.2 billion Catholics each donating a little something adds up to several billion dollars. I think he wants the image to reflect the Church’s spirit of poverty. Third, the Franciscans, unlike the previous religious orders, were a city ministry, and quite the opposite of the monastic orders. Monastics withdrew from the world into monasteries in the isolated countryside. Franciscans, formed in the high middle ages with the resurgence of cities, engaged people’s needs on a street level, caring for the destitute and evangelizing on a personal level. It’s most telling that the previous pope took his papal name from the most famous of the monastic’s, St. Benedict, while this pope stands in stark contrast. Finally, the significance of the name Francis for this Holy Father is the link to the charge Christ Himself directed St. Francis at a ruined chapel outside of Assisi named San Damiano. “Francis, can’t you see my house is crumbling. Go and rebuild the church.” And so the saint is a known also as the mender of the church, and certainly there is some mending to be done in the current church.
We have these two strands in this pope, the disciplined mind of a scholarly Jesuit with the humility, simplicity, and human engagement of the Franciscan ministry. The implication is that he’s going to challenge the spiritually indifferent trend of western culture, both through rhetorical argumentation and humble example. And in him we see the real deal. He is inherently a humble man, lived in a small apartment, cooked his own meals, rode the subway, embraced the people in the slums. St. Francis embraced and kissed the lepers; Bergoglio washed and kissed the feet of today’s equivalent of the lepers, AIDs patients. On Holy Thursdays Catholic religious wash the feet of lay people in reminiscence of Christ washing His disciple’s feet (John, chpt 13). And at another Holy Thursday Bergoglio washed the feet of pregnant women to highlight the unborn, the truly least of humanity. (Christ: “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” Mat, 25:45) The unborn, the lowest caste of the secularized world, are so least of humanity that they can’t speak out, they can’t resist power, they can’t even show you their face to activate some element of compassion; compassion has to be there a priori. It will be the Holy Father’s mission to validate that compassion resides somewhere in every human heart, and connect it to our everlasting God. So far I am impressed with the selection. This seems to be an inspired pick. May God bless his words and deeds.
The Lord wants us like Him: with an open heart, roaming the streets of Buenos Aires. He wants us walking the streets of Buenos Aires and carrying His message! Like Him, on the road and on the street. He doesn’t want us hoarding His word just for ourselves, locked inside our own hearts, our own house, or in the temple, instead that we spill His word on the street. He wants us walking out on the street.