When Pope John-Paul II passed away in 2005, the Independent ran a leading article in which they described the papacy as “arguably the world’s second most important office, subordinate in influence and global power only to that of the President of the United States”. The same goes, more or less, I think, today. That makes the election of Cardinal Bergoglio as Holy Father a significant event for Catholics particularly, but also the world as a whole.
As the new pope emerged onto the balcony in St Peter’s Square, arms firmly by his side rather than extended out to the crowds like his predecessors Benedict XVI and John-Paul II, a climate-change was immediately evident. His background certainly suggests a shift of some kind for in becoming pope Bergoglio made history: The first pope in 1000 years from outside of Europe, the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit pope, the first to call himself ‘Francis’. This was no ordinary election.
Who is the new pope then? Until yesterday, he was Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires. He was born in Buenos Aires, but is of Italian descent, and was ordained by the Jesuits in 1969. A campaigner for social justice, he has criticized the “unjust distribution of goods” in the world and the economic inequality that accompanies it. Famous for living a humble lifestyle he gave up his grace and favour palace for a modest apartment, cooks for himself and travels by bus rather than official car. On most theological matters he is however as conservative as the previous two popes, holding fast to the Church’s teachings on matters such as abortion, priestly celibacy and homosexuality.
The absence of the fur lined mozetta, that Pope Benedict was so famous for, the simple way in which the new pope greeted the crowds and spoke to them, that he wore the stole only when he blessed them. This all suggests a more humble papacy with a more amplified concern for the poor.
The Church does, of course, need to reconnect with its roots. The troubles it has faced in recent years are arguably greater than any it has experienced before. It will certainly be no bad thing for the Church to adopt a humble attitude in a world that is growing ever more cynical of it. I was, at first, rather alarmed to see the new pope simply stand there in front of the crowds (and world) before him. Expecting him to reach out, with the charisma of John-Paul and the flamboyancy of Benedict, to the faithful in the way most of his recent predecessors have, I realized I was missing the point. The way in which he prayed, in silence, with the crowds was certainly a sign of hope for the reunification of Catholics all over the world.
The church’s problems lie not in its elaborate traditions and nature, but the ‘zero-tolerance’ way in which it promotes many of its teachings. Many Catholics, all as flawed human beings as everybody else, feel constrained by a Church they love but that is often prepared to turn its back on them when they come into conflict with it. Of course the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, priestly celibacy and contraception (all examples) can be theologically explained for, but a failure to understand the problems that face many human beings in their day-to-day lives is where the Vatican often strikes the wrong note.
Francis also has a real – and exciting – opportunity now to reconnect with the world as a whole. This is something John-Paul II did remarkably well, through history-making acts such as saying a prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem or using the millennium as a year of apology for the mistakes of the Catholic Church. The Church has the potential to refound itself as a force for connecting people of all faiths across the world, as a promoter of social justice, a protector of the poor, a defender of human rights and of the natural world. The Church’s teachings on all these matters (which is often neglected in favour of narrow minded journalism on its attitudes towards gay marriage for example) can be at the forefront of international policy.
Francis’s papacy then could represent a turning point for many Catholics in their relationship with the Church – an often too orthodox Church that has failed to keep up with the fast-changing world in which it exists. The new pope’s challenge will be to let light through the Vatican’s windows and to open its doors to the world. For now though Catholics all over the world will be celebrating the election of their new pope, albeit in different circumstances to normal.
Pope Francis I, a gentle, devout and humble man could well be the Holy Father to guide the Church into the 21st century and beyond with renewed confidence and purpose.
Granted, religion may be less of an issue in current affairs than in the days of the Byzantine iconoclasm, the Spanish inquisition and the deist controversy, but the centuries-old ceremony of conclave was certainly able to occupy the world’s media outlets and twitter feeds earlier this week. The buried ghosts of the past will continue to rise in the Catholic Church for centuries to come. In many ways the parallels from the past reveal much of the present situation that the church finds itself in.
The papacy of Pope Francis marks a number of firsts in the history of the Catholic Church. He is the first pope since 1415 to come into the position with his predecessor having resigned. In 1415 Gregory XII resigned in a bid to end the divisions of the Western Schism between the rival claimants of Avignon and Rome. Similarly Benedict XVI has resigned nearly 600 years later amidst much division in the church between liberal and conservative factions, over issues of the church’s approach to sexual morality.
Francis is also the first pontiff from South America, and the first non-European for some 1200 years to take on the role. Interestingly he is from Argentina, a country that has made headlines twice in the same week (note the ongoing dispute over the referendum in the Falkland Islands). It would be unwise to consider the two issues to be related, unless one accepts them as both being signs of the developing world becoming more assertive and confident in its global position.
The use of symbols is also important. On Wednesday evening Pope Francis appeared, robed in white, easily recognisable as a representation of purity, simplicity and austerity. This marks a contrast with the ostentation of Benedict XVI, oddly commended earlier this month by The Guardian for his taste in designer clothes. It also marks an effort to distance the new papacy from the moral crisis that the church has found itself in of late, note the O’Brien scandal in Scotland.
The choice of ‘Francis’ as a name is significant. Papal names are important in sending out a message about what the new papacy will represent. ‘Gregory’ was one of the bookie’s favourites for a name, representative of a desire for reform in the church, Gregory I and Gregory VII, both acting as iconic reformers in the church.
It marks identification with St Francis of Assisi and the mendicant order of the Franciscans. St Francis and his followers placed great emphasis on the importance of leading a wandering, charitable and austere lifestyle, in a bid to combat the age-old criticism of the church’s decadence and its wealth. The new pontiff is known for his work in Argentina amongst the poor (famously washing the feet of AIDs victims). Bear in mind Latin America is the home of “Liberation Theology”- a potent and heady mix of Marxism and Catholicism. St Francis is also renowned as a patron saint of the natural world. This begs the question of the role the church has to play in the fight against global warming and pollution.
Historical parallels noted, this is a papacy of firsts that must look towards the future. This is the first “twitter conclave”. More people found out about the selection of the new pope by reading tweets about the white smoke from the Sistine chapel, than by seeing it in person. We’ve had our first twitter general election (2010), US presidential election (2012), and now this. Social media now plays an indispensible part in how we relate to our leaders.
We don’t know what the papacy of Francis will mean. It would be easy to say that the church finds itself in problems like never before, but any history student (fresh from a 2pm lie-in) will tell you the church has encountered controversies every century. And indeed these issues often remain the same, but present themselves in different guises.