With popes, first appearances count for a lot, and Pope Francis said a great deal with his first appearance on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The fluffy papal master of ceremonies, Guido Marini, standing behind him, would have dressed him in an ermine trimmed scarlet mozzetta and a jewel-encrusted cross if Francis had allowed it, but the new pope insisted on wearing all white with a small crucifix dangling on a simple chain around his neck.
The message is clear. This pope who has chosen the name Francis after Francis of Assisi, who lived in a simple flat in Buenos Aires, cooked his own meals and took the bus to work each day, isn’t the least but interested in playing dress ups. There will be no Prada red shoes. The effete hand-made-lace-and-watered-silk brigade that swished around the court of Benedict XVI can presumably expect to be packed off home. As one of my Facebook friends commented last night: “From Pope Liberace to Pope Francis. That’s a lot of drag to put away. Somebody could make a killing on eBay.”
I’ve seen little in the way of media analysis of what Francis said to the crowd in St Peter’s Square in his first urbi et orbi (the city and the world) address, but it was very striking. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/13/pope-francis-i-first-address-full-text_n_2869157.html
Not once did he refer to himself as “pope”, but only as Bishop of the city of Rome: “You know it was the duty of the conclave to give Rome a Bishop”….”The diocesan community of Rome now has its Bishop”….”first of all, I would like to offer a prayer for our Bishop Emeritus, Benedict XVI”…. “And now, we take up this journey, Bishop and people”….”First I ask a favour of you: before the Bishop blesses his people, I ask you to pray to the Lord that he will bless me: the prayer of the people asking the blessing for their Bishop.”
Six such references in a few lines is hardly an accident. This pope is continuing a process that Benedict began of cutting the papacy down to a more modest size. With John Paul II, starved of love as a child, the giant, needy, charismatic personality of the pope had begun to eat up the whole Church.
But what, first Benedict, and now Francis are saying, is that the pope is Bishop of Rome, not king of the world. Benedict’s decision to abdicate because of old age was part of that process of modification. And when Francis took the oath of loyalty from each of the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, he chose to stand to greet them rather than sitting on the papal throne. On the balcony of St Peter’s, he ignored the usual script and asked the crowd to pray for him before he blessed them. Afterwards, he took the bus back to his lodgings with the other cardinals, and carried his own bag down and paid his own hotel bill. Some kind of change is clearly coming.
Perhaps another indicator of change is the fact that among those most unhappy at the election of this new Argentinian pope are traditionalist Catholics. Apparently, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was no supporter of the Latin Mass. Nor was he a supporter of the new Anglican ordinariate that Pope Benedict established, but that is already fizzing out to the great embarrassment of a number of Australian bishops who promoted it in Rome, including Cardinal Pell and Bishop Peter Elliott.
Clearly this is a pontificate of firsts: the first New World pope and the first Jesuit. Choosing the name Francis, for the first time in the history of the papacy, also suggests that he is intentionally trying to inaugurate something new. With Benedict XVI it felt like something very big was coming to end, and the name Benedict, after the patron saint of Europe, may have been a fitting one to end it with, just as the name Francis would seem perfectly suited to a future whose emphasis is increasingly going to be on Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The fact that this is the first New World pope directs our attention to the fact that the cultural engine driving the worldwide Catholic Church is increasingly going to be one that is Spanish and Portuguese speaking. It is also interesting to reflect that 28% of the world’s Catholics are in South America, yet South America has only 10.5% of the world’s cardinals. Europe has 26% of the world’s Catholics, but a whopping 57% of the world’s cardinals. This anomaly can’t be expected to last for too much longer. Over-representation of Italians is the main issue, and I think we can safely say that after three non-Italian popes, and with a corrupt, Italian-dominated Vatican curia facing serious reform, the long centuries of Italian domination are finally beginning to wane. That will be a good thing for the entire Church.
It is also a reminder that the Catholic Church in Latin America is facing a crisis that, in its long-term cultural significance will be as big as the crisis of clerical sex abuse. Millions of Latin American Catholics – perhaps 80 million over the past 20 years – have been leaving the Church for Pentecostalism. Brazil, once around 96% Catholic, is now rapidly heading towards being no longer a majority-Catholic country. For a better understanding of the problems facing the Church in Latin American you can listen to this podcast at ABC Radio
The election of the first Jesuit pope opens a window onto the glorious history of the Jesuit order in spreading the Gospel beyond Europe, a history that also necessarily went hand-in-hand with the story of European colonisation.
The Jesuits took the Gospel to India and China. A mere nine years after the order was founded in 1540, Francis Xavier stepped off a boat in Yokohama speaking Japanese he had learnt from a sailor. Jesuits charted the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes and were the first Europeans to reach Hudson Bay overland. Jesuits founded the cities of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, and wherever they went they learned and preserved the native languages. As the great British historian Thomas Babbington MacAulay so gloriously put it: “The Jesuits invaded all the countries which the great maritime discoveries of the preceding age had laid open to European enterprise. They were to be found in the depths of the Peruvian mines, at the marts of the African slave-caravans, on the shores of the Spice Islands, in the observatories of China. They made converts in regions which neither avarice nor curiosity had tempted any of their countrymen to enter; and preached and disputed in tongues of which no other native of the West understood a word.”
The Jesuits often took the side of African slaves transported to work in mines and on plantations. The great Jesuit saint Peter Claver worked in horrific conditions on the slave ships arriving in Cartagena (Colombia), tending the sick, preaching the gospel and – something completely unheard of – baptising them in a chapel in which he had set up an altarpiece showing blacks as happy children of God. In 1750 in Paraguay, trained and equipped by the Jesuits, the Indians went to war near the River Plata against Spanish and Portuguese settlers (also Catholic) who were bent on enslaving them. This is the incident recorded in The Mission. In subsequent years, the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists would falsely allege back home in Europe that the Jesuits had established their own separate kingdom in Paraguay led by a Jesuit king named Nicholas. Beginning a pattern that would continue for the next 150 or so years, the Jesuits were expelled – first from Portugal itself in 1759, and then from Spain in 1767. The Spanish king, Charles III (of Goya fame), also expelled the Jesuits from all his territories in the Americas. Jesuit churches, schools and libraries in South America were left abandoned and in ruins.
Pope Francis is being billed as a pope of the people and of the poor. Like those early Jesuits, he is also a man of science, with a Masters degree in Chemical engineering (something that suggests a practical disposition). But as to how much he is a pope in this glorious Jesuit tradition, we shall just have to wait and see.
If the name Francis suggests a pope who wants to chart some kind of new beginning, there are also major continuities. Doctrinally, Pope Francis is a conservative in exactly the same mode as John Paul II (there are very few voting members of the College of Cardinals who aren’t), which is to say he is not likely to be an innovator on issues like contraception or gay marriage. In fact during the vitriolic marriage equality debate in Argentina in 2010, he described gay marriage as “a machination of the Father of Lies” (i.e.Satan), the gay marriage bill as “a strategy to destroy God’s plan” and adoption by gay couples as a form of discrimination against children. We can expect more of that kind of bluntness of language in future.
However he is also a man of common sense, and one senses, not likely to tie himself up in complicated theological knots in order to justify doctrinal positions that don’t make sense. We can already see that in the way he has cut through the nonsense on wearing condoms. Apparently he has joked in private about the sexual hardliners in the Church that “they want to stick the whole world inside a condom”. He says condoms can be permissible to prevent infection – again, a common sense view that would be shared by many in the hierarchy, including actually Benedict XVI. But it is a small shift with big ramifications, because it moves away from John Paul II’s loony position that every single sex act had to be “open to the transmission of life.”
This pope is also politically conservative. He is very close to the authoritarian movement Communion and Liberation, founded in Italy in the 1970s to counter the influence of the more left-leaning Catholic Action. His relationship with Argentina’s military junta is likely to be the subject of intense media scrutiny in the coming days. It seems he was not a vocal opponent of the regime in the way the heroic archbishop emeritus, Cardinal Paolo Everisto Arns, was an outspoken critic of the military junta in Brazil in the 1970s.
But Arns was the model for all the Latin American bishops who were purged under John Paul II. Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires (now Pope Francis) is the kind of bishop who replaced them.
Stephen Crittenden is a Sydney based religious affairs journalist and former long time host of the Radio National’s Religion Report.