Pope Francis. With his decision to adopt the name of one of Catholicism’s most beloved saints, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina offered his flock of 1.2 billion believers a clue to his own values and, perhaps, of the direction he hopes to take a church shaken by scandal.
To John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, a longtime watcher of the Vatican, the new pope’s choice of name spoke volumes.
“What it says to Catholics at a glance is poverty, humility, simplicity and a moment of rebirth and reform,” Allen told CNN viewers Wednesday, soon after the new pope was introduced.
Allen also took note, as did we, of the moment when the new pope asked those gathered in rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square outside the Vatican to pray for him — and then asked for a moment of silence. The square, which was filled with tens of thousands of boisterous people, grew quiet.
We hope Allen is right about his hunch — that the new pope means to reform the church, especially the Byzantine offices of the Roman Curia — because for all his good intentions, Benedict XVI was not able to do that.
The new pope, 76, faces an array of challenges after Benedict’s unexpected resignation, including an acute shortage of priests, a financial scandal in the Vatican, competition from other Christian faiths and, of course, the priest sex abuse scandal that worsened under the previous pontiff.
This is important, and not just to Catholics. Through its charities, the Catholic Church brings help and hope to millions across the planet. And, as Pope John Paul II showed with his work in helping to bring down the Iron Curtain, the church also can play a critical political role. A stable strong church can do more good than a weak, fractured church.
Francis is the first pope from the Americas and the first not born in Europe in 1,000 years, although his family is of Italian lineage. The College of Cardinals, which selected Bergoglio as its new leader, also sent a message — that the future of the church lies to the south, which is now home to most of its members.
Benedict, the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, was selected in 2005 after the long and eventful papacy of John Paul II, and he always seemed uneasy with management. In addition to a series of missteps involving Muslims and Jews, corruption grew inside the Vatican on his watch. At 85, Benedict decided his health would not allow him to go on, a courageous decision. He ended his papacy Feb. 28.
Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is known for his simplicity: He abandoned the archbishop’s mansion in favor of a small apartment, where he fixed his own meals and used public transportation to get around. He is a Jesuit, the first of that order to serve as pope, and is known both for his humble style and his shoe-leather work as an evangelist.
“I would like to thank you for your embrace,” the new pope said from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, “My brother cardinals have chosen one who is from far away, but here I am.”
Hints of his style can be seen in a speech Francis gave last year in which he accused fellow church officials of hypocrisy and compared them to the Pharisees of Christ’s time.
“In our ecclesiastical region, there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage,” Bergoglio told his priests. “These are today’s hypocrites. … And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized!
“Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.”
It strikes us that this is exactly the kind of spirit that the church needs at this time, a spirit that believers may respond to. We wish the new pope well.