First, full disclosure: I am not, and have never been, a Roman Catholic.
That said, I still shared the elation felt by Catholics with last week’s surprise election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope and spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Bergoglio, an Argentine Italian, is the first pope ever from the Western Hemisphere — some 40 percent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America — and the first member of the intellectually acclaimed Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He is also the first to ever take the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assissi (1181-1226), known for his voluntary poverty, humility, love of animals and care for the poor.
Along with those loves and Francis’ well-documented disregard for the pomp and trappings of grandeur enjoyed by cardinals and popes for centuries, the new pope — who took public buses to work and cooked his own meals in a humble Buenos Aires apartment — twice displayed a self-effacing sense of humor in the hours after his election. First, he said the conclave had “to go to the ends of the earth” before finding him. Later, when toasting some of those same cardinals, he quipped, “May God forgive you.”
No Vatican-watch oddsmaker gave Francis even a remote shot at the papacy. But his past reputation and early comments last Saturday calling for “a poor church for the poor” gave rise to hopes that this pope may be more like Jesus himself and less in the mold of his immediate predecessors, at least as far back as Pope John XXIII.
John, who was pope from 1958 to 1963, promoted far-reaching change for the church, launched the Vatican II Council that examined centuries-old doctrine, and opened a window for fresh air. Although John was widely loved, his successors slammed that window shut and appeared to nail it closed.
Even popes are human. And many of the 265 previous popes have been more human than others. Along with some worthy of sainthood, they’ve included bastard children (some elected through Medici politics), adolescents and madmen. In 1309, there were three different popes contending for the souls of the faithful all at once.
I was no great fan of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) when he visited Denver for the two-week-long “World Youth Day” celebration during the summer of 1993. But Denver gang violence and rampant drive-by shootings evaporated during those two weeks, and news editors and TV station managers were worried about a steady diet of good news. Covering the celebration for the Denver Post, I was close to Paul on four different occasions, and the man radiated a presence not exactly of this world — even to a non-believer.
Popes hold powers not of this world, but from a moral force that — when respected — can hold sway over believers and non-believers. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin missed that point when, after being criticized by Pope Pius XII for invading Poland, cynically asked “how many (army) divisions does the pope have?”
Humble Pope Francis takes the helm of a Church deeply damaged by sex abuse, financial scandal and challenges to ancient doctrine, at a time when a New York Times/CBS poll taken last week indicated 60 percent of U.S. Catholics supported gay marriage and 70 percent were in favor of birth control.
J. Sebastian Sinisi
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