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The selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a 76-year-old Argentinian cardinal, as the 266th pontiff of the Catholic Church demonstrates a dynamism and flexibility that critics generally do not associate with the church. It also showed that the church might be more unified than many realized: for an institution supposedly riven between the conservative Roman Curia, which runs the Vatican, and reformers throughout the rest of the church, the College of Cardinals coalesced around its new leader quite quickly. If his tenure is anything like his ascension to the papacy, Bergoglio will bring about a new season of renewal with an emphasis on Christian fundamentals such as charity, the word of God, and reconciliation with other faiths.
Pope Francis, as Bergoglio will now be called, defies easy categorization. Much has been made, of course, of his standing as the first pontiff from South America (indeed, the first non-European in 1,200 years). He is also the first Jesuit in papal history, which is, in some ways, an even more mind-blowing milestone. Founded in the sixteenth century as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits today comprise the church’s largest religious order with a reputation as its leading intellectual wellspring. The Jesuits run education institutions around the world and tend to shun positions of power in favor of missionary work. The group has even been somewhat controversial: in the 1970s and 1980s, Pope John Paul II, for example, harshly criticized some Jesuits for being too liberal and politically engaged.
So in both his geographic and spiritual identity, Francis is an outsider. He is a New World man with Old World ties (his parents were Italian immigrants). He is the son of a railroad worker who rose to become a Prince of the Church, as cardinals are known. He is a liberal who ardently advocates for the poor and condemns social inequality and also a conservative who maintains a hard line against abortion and same-sex marriage. If anything, the impossibility of pigeonholing Francis’ qualities will allow him to bridge old divides.
And there is a practical reason, too, that his selection will help the church come together. By all accounts, the Roman Curia has been in need of a good spring-cleaning. Observers have said that infighting between Curia officials and the corruption unveiled by the VatiLeaks scandal that unfolded in Italian courts over the last year contributed to Pope Benedict XVI’s departure. By resigning, Benedict triggered the mandatory resignation of all Curia office directors, too. Francis can now build anew. He will not rely on the same old intrigants, but will probably staff the Curia with more non-Italians -- outsiders, like himself.
In his brief appearance on the Balcony of Blessings at Saint Peter’s Basilica Wednesday, Francis exemplified other qualities that will help inspire his church. Unlike his two predecessors, who appeared in a mozzetta (the short red velvet ceremonial cape), Francis wore only a white silk cassock. In doing so, he signaled humility and a pastor’s simplicity. His address was similar in tone. He greeted the square with “Good evening.” He immediately evoked his predecessor’s name and led the crowd in saying two prayers for him, a first. Then he bowed his head and asked the people to pray for him as well. That, too, was a first. The 150,000 people amassed in the square below him went silent -- and they prayed. At the end, the pope wished them a good night’s rest. It was a powerful image of ease for a church caricatured as rigidly hierarchical.
Francis’ choice of name also reveals much about his vision for the Catholic Church. First, if Jesuits have any rivals, they are the Franciscans, the other main order within the Catholic Church. The two groups have different charisms, or missions: historically, Jesuits tend to be teachers, worldly men, whereas Franciscans suffer with common people, rejecting worldly temptation. For a new Jesuit pope to name himself after St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan order in the year 1210, is a symbolic gesture of reconciliation. He is exemplifying that the differences between Christian groups matter less than their shared faith in Christ, and that the various talents they can bring to bear are what make the Catholic Church great.
Second, Saint Francis is best known for giving up all his possessions and preaching the Gospel message. He considered poverty to be an essential element of true Christian living and was also famously devoted to animals and to nature. In his choice of name, then, the new pope also hinted at intentions to imitate Christ’s simplicity (and present it as an alternative to modern materialistic lifestyles), to restore the Gospel basis of faith, and, possibly, to promote environmentalism -- a subject not much associated with the church to date.
A third aspect of St. Francis’ life and legacy that must have figured into the new pope’s name choice is the saint’s special relationship with the Muslim world. In 1219, St. Francis traveled to Egypt, where Christians were attacking the Egyptian city of Danietta as part of the Fifth Crusade. There, St. Francis met with the Sultan in an attempt to end the conflict. The encounter convinced Francis that he should approach Muslims as brothers, not enemies. He went on to Acre, in Palestine, and established communities to care for Christian holy sites. Since 1342, Franciscans have been recognized by the Catholic Church as Custodians of the Holy Land. The jurisdiction covers Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes. The job entails managing churches and convents, caring for pilgrims, and advocating peace. Today the Franciscans remain active in efforts to solve Middle Eastern conflict, for example by striving to defend the small Christian community that continues to live in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank through job creation, housing rehab, child sponsorship and programs for local dialogue.
Beyond striving to improve ties with the Muslim world, the new pope will likely try to continue improving Catholic-Jewish relations, which was a major priority for both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In Argentina, Bergoglio had a solid relationship with the Jewish community. He celebrated various Jewish holidays, even lighting a candle on the menorah on Hanukkah. He also penned a book on interfaith dialogue, On Heaven and Earth, with Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka. Anglicans and evangelical Protestants from Argentina have also praised Francis for being an exceptional bridge builder.
So, as Francis highlights humility and social justice, he will also be promoting inclusion, cultural respect, shared experience, and reconciliation with other faiths and other Christian denominations. That should energize the Catholic Church and excite new adherents. One can already see it: Wednesday, a packed St. Peter’s Square was filled with enthusiastic youthful throngs waving flags from around the world. The Twitterverse exploded with pope-related tweets -- some four million in the two hours following the white smoke. And the pope bowed before his followers to receive their blessing. It was a renewal. Considering how brilliant a choice Jorge Bergoglio was, it is odd that he was on few Vatican-watchers’ shortlists. He was a stealth candidate -- or, as many Catholics are saying, a divine selection.