21st century pontiff
Pope Francis electrifies the faithful around the world with his charm and faith . . .
To say that the world has embraced Pope Francis may be a bit of an understatement. Liberal Catholics have lauded his focus on the poor and underprivileged, while conservatives appreciate the pontiff’s love of Mary and the liturgy.
Protestants and non-Christians alike appreciate the new Pope’s warmth and charm, while the mainstream media have found little to gripe about yet. It may be just a “honeymoon” period, but for now Pope Francis is feeling the love.
Before he could even celebrate his first month as the Roman pontiff, several major publishers already had biographies of the former Argentinian cardinal on the shelves. And before his election to the Throne of Peter was even 24 hours old, I noticed that shops outside the Vatican were already pedaling Pope Francis buttons, key chains and T-shirts.
Keeping it simple
The son of Italian immigrants, Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Dec. 17, 1936. After serving as archbishop of his country’s capital city since 1998, he was created a cardinal in 2001, and elected to the papacy on March 13. He is the first pope from the Americas, the first Jesuit pope and the first to take the name Francis.
If there is one immediate impression this new pope has made during his first weeks in Rome, it’s his emphasis on the poor and dispossessed. Just a few days after his election, he held a special audience at the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall for the more than 5,000 journalists from around the world who were in Rome to cover the conclave, and I was among them.
In his address, Pope Francis explained his reason for choosing the humble saint from Assisi as his papal patron “For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and safeguards creation. In this moment when our relationship with creation is not so good — right? — he is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man. Oh, how I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor!”
The Holy Father has certainly been a man of his word. He was known to ride the bus to work in Buenos Aires, he lived in a simple apartment with a retired bishop, did his own cooking, and frequently ministered to the poor himself.
As the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis has continued in the same vein by simplifying papal customs. He wears a simple pectoral cross and has done away with the tradition of wearing red shoes and white slacks under his white cassock. And he put the ornate papal thrones in storage. The Pope has preferred to sit on a regular white chair at ground level. Previous popes have had their perch elevated.
More noticeably, he has not moved into the spacious papal apartments. The Pope is living at Domus Santa Marta, the residence behind St. Peter’s Basilica where he and the voting cardinals stayed during the conclave.
Matthew Bunson, who penned the best-selling biography Pope Francis (Our Sunday Visitor), told me that the Holy Father’s charm, simplicity and charisma have already won the hearts of millions around the world.
“His pontificate so far has been full of powerful gestures of humility and service,” he explained. “I expect that they will be matched by his teachings on mercy, forgiveness and the embrace of the authentic Christian life — something he has been talking about for years in his homilies and writings.”
The image of Francis’ pontificate, Bunson said, was set on his inauguration day — March 19 — when he told his driver to stop the popemobile. The Holy Father got out and kissed and embraced a severely handicapped man. Similarly, on Easter Sunday, he instructed his security detail to bring him eight-year-old Dominic Gondreau, a Rhode Island boy with severe cerebral palsy. The Pope embraced the child, bringing tears to the eyes of his parents and millions who saw the incident on television and the Internet.
Even though his changes in papal protocol have raised eyebrows in some quarters, he has at the same time earned tremendous respect. For example, the Holy Father opted to celebrate Holy Thursday Mass at a youth detention center in Rome, rather than the traditional location — the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The Pope washed the feet of 12 youth — girls and boys from diverse nationalities and religious confessions.
“He is teaching us that it has to be more than just a gesture,” Bunson said. “It has to come from somewhere, and it’s coming from his love for Jesus Christ. Like Pope Benedict before him, Pope Francis is teaching us and showing us that everything has to flow from caritas, from charity, from love — otherwise we are nothing more than NGOs [non-governmental organizations].”
Francis the reformer
The buzz throughout Rome during the conclave was that the new pope, whoever he happened to be, would need to be a dynamic personality who could teach and explain the faith to a generation virtually swallowed up by a secular culture. The new pope’s second — and concurrent task — would be to reform the governance of the Church: Vatican City State and the Roman curia, which has for years been plagued by mismanagement and scandal.
The fact that the former Cardinal Bergoglio chose Francis of Assisi as his patron is not lost on those anxious for curial reform. The great saint, who died in 1226, once entered the church of San Damiano which was threatening to collapse because of extreme age. As Francis prayed, he heard a voice coming from the cross telling him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”
While the Vatican’s government isn’t ready to collapse, it is certainly in need of renovation. The Pope’s first move in this regard came three days after his election when he provisionally renewed Roman curia leaders’ appointments. All top curia officials’ authority lapses when the Seat of Peter becomes vacant. Ordinarily a new pontiff quickly renews their appointments. But Pope Francis waited a few days before announcing that all Vatican officials should remain at their posts donec aliter provideatur — until other provisions are made.
“The task of reforming the curia and the governance of the Vatican City State is one of the big tasks given to him by the College of Cardinals,” Bunson said. “Structure-wide reform is coming. I think we could see some consolidating of Vatican departments to make things more efficient, but the Pope’s most important and telling task will be the appointment of his Secretary of State.”
In mid-April, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had established a group of eight cardinals from around the world — including Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley — to advise him in the government of the universal Church. The cardinals will also study a plan for revising the apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia, Pastor Bonus, promulgated by Blessed John Paul II in 1988.
Even thought the tasks before him seem monumental, Vatican watchers say they’re confident that Pope Francis is the right man for the job. After all, he has shown that much is accomplished by relying on God rather than men.
His method of sticking to the simple gospel message has already drawn many inactive Catholics back to the Church. I’ve even heard Protestant Christians refer to him as “our pope.” It’s rather ironic that in a culture of rampant materialism, Pope Francis has found a winning formula by drawing on the saint of poverty and simplicity. It will serve him well in the years ahead.
PATRICK NOVECOSKY is Legatus magazine’s editor-in-chief.