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Editorial: A humble leader for 1.2 billion Catholics


August 24. 2013 2:29PM
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By Chicago Tribune



For many Roman Catholics in the United States, the Church of Rome is anything but. The paradox of a global religion is that its members can focus on as much or as little of it as they wish: its role in their nation, their metropolis, their neighborhood. Much as ancient Greeks believed the cosmos revolved around Earth, many of today’s Catholics view their church in terms of themselves, their issues and their opinions.



On Wednesday, though, U.S. Catholics got a stark reminder that although 48 percent of their church’s 1.2 billion members live in the Western Hemisphere, only one-fifth of those are North Americans. Some 425 million other Catholics live in Central America, the Caribbean or South America, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. One of them, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, is relocating to the Vatican under a newly assumed name: Pope Francis.



His elevation to the papacy matters for reasons that reach far beyond his vast and philosophically cleaved flock: traditionalists and modernists, free-thinkers and doctrinaire purists, all-in loyalists and “cafeteria Catholics” who select which teachings they believe and which rules they follow: In this nation and many others, Catholics and their institutions are the largest private providers of education, health care and charitable services. And whether the rest of us agree or disagree with its positions, the U.S. church is a rigorous voice on social issues — a voice of multimillennial values in a culture prone to preach that what’s new is therefore good.



In this new pope, U.S. Catholics have a leader who defies easy categories: He has lived simply in a Buenos Aires apartment, often riding public transit among fellow Argentines who know him as “Father Jorge.” Yet as one of the world’s 19,000 Jesuits — “God’s Marines,” with reputations for intellectual rigor and comfort with competing ideologies — he survived the Society of Jesus’ lengthy education and formation protocols. He has forcefully opposed abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and adoptions by gays, but also taught deep respect for gays and lesbians as children of God. He publicly embraced ministry to HIV patients, traveling to a hospice in 2001 to symbolically wash and kiss the feet of 12 AIDS patients.



By all accounts his humility and sense of social outreach suffused his ecclesiastical rise in South America, where it’s not uncommon for scattered believers to go a year without encountering a priest: An Associated Press profile of the new pontiff notes that, in a speech last year, then-Cardinal Bergoglio accused fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.



That dedication to social justice may explain his selection of a papal name. Francis of Assisi, who died in 1226, is among Catholicism’s most revered saints. The son of a rich Italian merchant, St. Francis was inspired by a passage from the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus urges his followers to take no money, walking sticks or even shoes as they go forth to speak of God’s kingdom. Francis led a life of poverty; he and his community of fellow “lesser brothers” — the antecedents of today’s Franciscans worldwide — lived in a former lepers’ house near Assisi.



To the extent that Pope Francis focuses his church on root teachings about poverty and justice, he may leave some U.S. Catholics wondering what happened to their issues — the role of women in Catholicism, a push for (or against) liberalized doctrines, damaging effects from sexual abuse scandals, bureaucratic reform from the Vatican on down. His history suggests that, like Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, he’ll want a church true to its beliefs, not one that tailors principles to please those who disagree.



But who can predict that which the new pope himself may not yet know? All of us, of all faiths or of none, will watch together as yesterday’s Father Jorge steers tomorrow’s global church.





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