Pope Francis enters the lists as the 266th Pontiff of the Catholic Church. There's a lot of speculation as to how well he'll do in what may be the most demanding job in the world, and what he'll bring to the See of Peter. Here's what I'm thinking, as a former 'insider'.
His name is significant. No previous Pope has taken the name of Francis, which presumably commemorates St. Francis of Assisi. (Note that he is not 'Pope Francis I'; he'll only receive the numeric suffix if a future Pope also takes the name of Francis, in which case he'll become known as 'Pope Francis I' and the then-current Pope will become 'Pope Francis II'.) St. Francis was known for his love of poverty and affection for the poor and downtrodden. Certainly, in his pastoral life so far, Pope Francis can honestly claim to have demonstrated similar concerns. He's chosen to live very simply in a small apartment, without servants, even cooking his own meals - surely almost unique among senior bishops and cardinals. I find this a very positive sign.
I'm somewhat disturbed by his seeming lack of action against the ruling military junta in Argentina during the so-called 'Dirty War' in the 1970's. However, I only know about it (and him) what I've read from partisan third-hand sources, which are hardly the best material on which to base an opinion; so it's probably best to reserve judgment on the issue. Besides, (apparent) lack of action against the junta does not in itself indicate support for the junta. There's also his outspoken support of Argentinian sovereignty over the Falkland Islands during and after the war of 1982. Such opinions are, of course, shared by many Argentines. They have no specific doctrinal or dogmatic bearing on his Catholic faith. However, they may become a source of conflict between him and Anglo-Catholics. This will be something to watch.
His moral perspectives appear classically Catholic, which is hardly a surprise in the West, but is somewhat unusual in a prelate from the continent where 'liberation theology' had its genesis. He's been a reliably orthodox voice in theological and ecclesiastical circles in Argentina and South America. This bodes well for doctrinal and dogmatic continuity, but will dismay those who want to see the Church 'modernize' its teaching. Frankly, I think the latter are on a hiding to nowhere. The Church has maintained its teaching over two millennia so far. If it were to amend it with every freshly prevailing wind, it wouldn't have a dogmatic leg to stand on. The very fact that its teachings have remained relatively unchanged for so long is a very strong argument for their historical authenticity, IMHO.
He's a Jesuit. This may - I emphasize may, not necessarily will - be a weakness, in that some Jesuits are notoriously reputed to be intellectually arrogant, intolerant of others, and dangerously prone to errors of pride in their theological perspectives and pastoral judgment. Such criticisms can certainly be applied to a few Jesuits of my acquaintance; but I've known many others who did not suffer from them. Pope Francis' past career hardly indicates that he suffers from such spiritual ailments, so he may be exempt from these failings. Time will tell. Furthermore, he's been a Jesuit provincial as well as an Archbishop and Cardinal, so he'll have become accustomed to dealing with 'insiders' at high levels in the Church. This will have allowed him to build up a network of contacts and influence that he'll be able to draw upon when taking up the reins of his new position. However, although he's been in contact with 'insiders', he's never been a Roman 'insider' himself, as was his predecessor. He'll bring a more immediately pastoral perspective to the Vatican, something that I believe it sorely needs.
Far too many who live and work in the Vatican become very insular, viewing the world through the rarefied, almost monastic atmosphere of a hotbed of Church 'insider politics' and the management of its affairs. This can all too easily lose sight of the fact that the Church is people rather than property, lives rather than buildings, individuals rather than institutions. I think Pope Francis' intense pastoral emphasis and simple lifestyle will be a powerful witness to the Curia . . . if they allow his witness to influence them. Many Curial 'organization men' and 'company men' will not. Just as when the last 'pastoral Pontiff', John XXIII, arrived in the Vatican, the Curia will already be scheming how to 'manage the Pope' - swamp him with so much detail, so many minutiae, that he won't have the time (let alone the inclination) to put his own stamp on the governance of the institution.
Blessed Pope John XXIII, of course, threw the Curia into utter confusion by refusing to allow them to manage him. He applied his simplicity and wonderful sense of humor to defusing all their attempts at controlling his administration of the Church.
- When asked how many people worked in the Vatican, he ruefully replied, "About half!"
- When he decided to call the Second Vatican Council, Curia insiders joined forces to defeat his attempt to modernize and streamline the Church's pastoral mission, raising all sorts of obstacles and objections to beginning the Council in 1963, as he'd planned. He mildly responded, "Bene, bene, we'll hold it in 1962!" - and he did. He died just as the Council was getting under way, but by then he'd opened the doors and windows to the 'fresh air' of the Holy Spirit. There was no turning back.
- He retained the 'common touch' that made him beloved of millions of Catholics, speaking to pilgrims face-to-face, making pastoral visits (the first Pope to do so since 1870), and sneaking out of the Vatican to walk the streets of Rome alone at night. This outraged the stuffed shirts of the Curia, but he cheerfully ignored their apoplectic protests and continued to reach out to the ordinary people around him.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Pope Francis may be a man more in the mold of Pope John XXIII than of Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI. If so, I think that will be a very good thing for the Church in today's world.
I think his biggest single challenge is going to be to renew the leadership of the Church; to ease into retirement the 'organization men' who currently control her, and in their place appoint leaders who are more pastoral and practical in their approach. Above all, he's got to find an answer to the ongoing sex scandals that are plaguing the Church. Far too many of them are dragging on precisely because the 'organization men' have deliberately refused to confront them, preferring to sweep them under the rug rather than haul them out into the light of day, make full disclosure about them, punish the guilty, and (if they bore any responsibility for what happened, either by commission or by omission) resigning their office(s) if necessary, as part of the 'housecleaning' process. I've written extensively about this before (see my articles on the subject in the sidebar), so I'll say no more here . . . but there are many like myself who've been driven out of active participation and ministry in the Church by our consciences, rather than acquiesce in the cover-ups that have taken place. For all our sakes, and for the sake of the Church as a whole, I hope Pope Francis can find a solution to this problem. We'll have to see.
Finally, I'm looking forward to seeing what conspiracy theorists make of Pope Francis in the light of the so-called 'Prophecy of the Popes'. Given that, on the face of it, he appears to be neither a Peter (in name, anyway) or a Roman, they're going to have to indulge in all sorts of intellectual tail-chasing to make him fit the 'last Pope' theory that some have already claimed would follow Pope Benedict XVI. However, such obstacles have never before prevented prophets of doom from plying their trade. I'm sure they'll come up with creative and convoluted ways to force Pope Francis to fit their theories!
I'll pray for Pope Francis as he assumes his office. I invite those of my readers who are men and women of faith (any faith) to please do the same. He's got a very tough job ahead. We need the right man in that job . . . and he's going to need all the help he can get, both human and divine.