On the 11th of March 2013, Roman Catholic Cardinals began a conclave to elect the Church’s 266th pontiff and successor to Pope Benedict, who resigned unexpectedly on February 28th 2013. They held one vote that evening and were set to vote up to four times each day thereafter until one cardinal received a two-thirds majority; or 77 votes.
On 13th March 2013, after two days of black smoke, the world watching with bated breath, white smoke finally appeared; Habemus Papem- we have a pope! 76-year old Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the new head of the 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church, taking the papal name Francis, in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi.
And when he finally appeared on the balcony, everyone wanted to know, who is he and what does his election mean for the Church?
A Pope of Many Firsts
Pope Francis is a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was ordained a priest in 1969. In 1998 he became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and was made Cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001. He is the first Latin American Pope in the Roman Catholic Church; the first from the Americas and the first from the Southern Hemisphere.
He is the first Pope to take this name, but he is not Francis I. He is Pope Francis. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi explains: “It will become Francis I after we have a Francis II.” Pope John Paul I, the last pope to affix a ‘I’, decided to attach it himself.
Pope Francis is also the first Jesuit pope; that is, the first pope to emerge from the Society of Jesus, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church that is engaged in evangelism and apostolic ministry in 112 nations on six continents.
Love The LORD Your God With All Your Heart…
Jesuits are renowned for their willingness to accept orders anywhere in the world and to live in extreme conditions, sharing the love of Christ. In 2001, during a visit to a hospice, Jorge Mario Bergoglio washed and kissed the feet of 12 AIDS patients.
At 76, and despite having lived the last 20 years with only one functional lung, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Less privileged Catholics around the world now have a leader who is in touch with their reality; a man who used public transport rather than taxis or a chauffeured car to get around; a man who lived in a small flat with an older priest and made all his own meals, despite having access to the Archbishop’s quarters and a chef; a man who, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, travelled to the conclave in Rome on an economy flight.
When he was made a Cardinal, he persuaded hundreds of Argentinians not to fly to Rome to celebrate with him but instead to give the money they would have spent on plane tickets to the poor.
…And With All Your Mind
Jesuits work in education (founding schools, colleges, universities and seminaries), intellectual research, and cultural pursuits, and Pope Francis is in fact respected for his intellectual prowess. Fluent in Spanish, Italian, German, French and English, he studied Philosophy at the Catholic University of Buenos Aires and also has a master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires.
In addition to his teaching career, he was a teacher of literature, psychology, philosophy and theology before becoming the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. He is the co-author of “Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra (On Heaven and Earth)”, and is known for the intellectual rigour he brings to spiritual discourse.
…And With All Your Strength
Jesuits also organize retreats, minister in hospitals and parishes and promote social justice and ecumenical dialogue; activities which Pope Francis, passionate about pastoral work, has wholeheartedly devoted himself to during his years of service.
He is no stranger to the hardships the common man faces daily. In fact, he is well known for his austere outlook to life and is famed for taking a bus to work every day in his native Argentina, giving up his driver and official limousine.
Pope Francis’ interest in social justice represents hope for the poor. He is a renowned anti-corruption crusader, who has also accused Argentina’s government of not doing enough to eradicate poverty. His austere outlook towards life explains his choice of Francis as his papal name. Francis of Assisi, who he is named after, is a popular Catholic saint who lived humbly and gave his possession away to the poor.
During his tenure as Archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013, his efforts to set an example for others did not go unnoticed. In fact, he eschewed the extravagant robes of his position for the humble robes of a simple priest.
Corruption and poverty are not unique to Latin America. With an estimated 19 million Roman Catholics in Nigeria as at 2005, there is no doubt that the Pope’s heart for the poor, and passion for social justice, will have a positive impact here, where these two plagues cripple lives daily.
What Does All of This Mean for Latin America, for Africa, for the World?
Christianity today is in a critical place, the Roman Catholic Church particularly so. Amidst appeals to the Church to review its stand on contraception, and calls to legalize abortion and gay marriage, it is obvious to many that most conservatives are bending over backwards to adhere to the teachings of the Church down to the tiniest detail, and many liberals are working just as hard to push the boundaries as far as they possibly can in the opposite direction.
But perhaps, what the Catholic Church needs is a man who is not only interested in the letter of God’s law, but also in the spirit of it.
Pope Francis is a conservative known for his strong anti-gay stance. In 2010 he described homosexuality as a “destructive attack on God’s plan.” He was a fierce opponent of Argentina’s decision to legalise gay marriage in 2010, arguing that children need to have the right to be raised and educated by a father and a mother.
Yet, he has criticized priests who refuse to baptize babies born to single mothers, and also believes condoms can be permissible to prevent disease.
It is no wonder then, that Pope Francis is considered by many to be an agent of change. Many expect that he will unite the Catholic Church. It is hoped that he will deal with the rise of sexual abuse amongst Catholic priests that has tainted the Church in recent times. Some even speculate that certain longstanding doctrines of the Catholic Church will be reviewed before his tenure is over.
More than all this, the Roman Catholic Church needs a strong leader, and the man Roman Catholics across the world now look up to, has a clear idea of leadership. He says, “A religious leader can be strong, and very firm, but without being aggressive,” he says. “Whoever leads should be like those who serve. When he stops serving he becomes a mere manager, a representative of an NGO.”
The predictions are correct on at least one point; change is certainly coming. What shape it will take, only time will tell. However, one thing is sure; the counsel of the LORD will stand. After all, who is he that says a thing and it comes to pass when the LORD has not commanded it?