Shadow Government

Habemus papam

We have a pope, and the announcement came on the afternoon when, bored after a couple of days of no results, the same shade of smoke four whole times in a row, and dwindling leaks, the media turned to the line "divided cardinals can’t decide who will lead church (which is plagued by scandal)." The ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

We have a pope, and the announcement came on the afternoon when, bored after a couple of days of no results, the same shade of smoke four whole times in a row, and dwindling leaks, the media turned to the line "divided cardinals can’t decide who will lead church (which is plagued by scandal)." The choice was not the woman E.J. Dionne hoped for to heal the church (fraught with scandal), nor the African whom Dennis Rodman journeyed to Rome expecting to meet after his wildly successful basketball diplomacy in North Korea (the church whose new leader Rodman sought to meet has faced a long series of scandals). Rodman, however, was closer than most to predicting correctly the outcome of the conclave (held at a moment of crisis over scandals).

The leader of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, is known informally as "the black pope" because of the black vestments worn by that order, and the title is sometimes used ironically (until yesterday, anyway) because of the ups and downs of the relationship over the centuries between the pope and the Jesuits (who were once suppressed by a church now beset with scandal). But the new pope is the first Jesuit to assume the throne of Peter (and he must now deal with a range of scandals). One wonders if the Lord really has a sense of humor, telling the Jesuits, "You guys are so smart?  Let’s see how one of you likes being in charge of 1.2 billion mortals. And a bunch of scandals."

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina walked into the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI and, apparently to his own surprise, was not far from walking out as the pope elected by those who sought to block Joseph Ratzinger’s papacy. So while Cardinal Bergoglio was not among the front-runners this time around as handicapped by Vaticanistas, his selection was not entirely out of left field (springtime brings these mixed sports metaphors, amidst the scandals).

Pope Francis walked out on the balcony yesterday after a relatively quick conclave, which was thankfully months shorter than the 2000 election court challenges in the U.S. Although not well known by the international media, he comes with a great reputation. He is thought to be thoroughly orthodox in his theology, which may disappoint some of his brother Jesuits and plenty of others who were hoping for a brand of modernizing, progressive reform comparable to what Americans are experiencing under President Obama (and progressivism is thought by some to be the only remedy for the many scandals afflicting the church).

But there is much in a name (even in a church struggling with scandal). Those of us whose primary cultural references include the Animal House film genre (and, in my case, fighter squadrons — much of a muchness) can forget that renaming has a long and very serious scriptural history. Abram is renamed Abraham, Simon is renamed Peter, and there are many other such cases.

While the name Francis may in part allude to that great Jesuit global evangelizer St. Francis Xavier, it seems clear that the new pope has taken his name from St. Francis of Assisi. That is a wonderful choice in many ways. No pope has taken that name before, suggesting a willingness to do something fresh while remaining firmly within tradition by asking for the protection of a great figure in church history (that history is now being challenged by scandal). St. Francis famously renounced his family wealth in favor of a life of genuine poverty and love for the poor, and the new pope has "walked that walk" in Argentina. St. Francis is also known (and idealized in ways that might have horrified him) for his love of wildlife and what we now call nature. His statue adorns many gardens of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His qualities give him a universal appeal (important for a church fighting to overcome scandal). The choice of name responds, intentionally or not, to the universal interest in this election, in and out of the church (about which Maureen Down has open questions based on scandals).

Moreover, although not taken by a pope before, the name Francis has the hallmark of a certain kind of continuity. St. Benedict began the western monastic movement at the end of the Roman empire, a time of chaos, as Europe entered the middle ages (sometimes ineptly dubbed the "dark ages"). G.K. Chesterton, in his biography of St. Francis, calls this period one of necessary penance, from which continued reform (and the rise of Europe) would emerge. The markers of that emergence were the foundation of two new church orders, that of St. Dominic and that of St. Francis. The transition from Benedict to Francis took several centuries the first time around. Perhaps this pope is seeking to speed to process this time, or more likely, to call attention to the long tides of temporal events in which church history plays out.

We can expect that, like his predecessor, this pope will conduct a diplomacy that is, at root, more evangelical than political. While his perspective as a non-European will be different than previous popes, he has spent much time in Rome and comes from Italian heritage (which, along with choosing a name associated with Assisi, will ease his way into the chair — the Curia at the Vatican has all the bureaucratic features of DOD or the State Department, and outsiders have much work to do gaining respect and loyalty).  

This pope is not afraid to take on the powers of the planet. He has challenged the authoritarian tendencies of the Kirchners, but he will likely not go picking unnecessary fights. He is comfortable with democracy (long-ago reports of ties to the Argentinean junta were evidently dispelled by testimony of the Amnesty International director there — we certainly hope there is not yet another scandal brewing, but this time it looks safe). He will have to spend much time on his flock in places where Christians are routinely persecuted.

The scandals brought upon the church by the malice and error of too many of its all-too human members are real. Pope Francis must indeed deal forcefully with them. He seems to be a vicar of Christ who will do so, at the same time moving to put the historical Christian message — the gospel’s scandal of the cross — at the forefront of his papacy. While the right administrative and, where needed, punitive measures will be essential, that central message will be the most Franciscan, most effective priority that Pope Francis could adopt. And he will.

His election has brought joy to Catholics, and many others, from around a world that St. Francis, living before the European age of exploration, had little familiarity with. A few weeks ago in this space, I suggested that Catholics pray that we not get the pope we deserve. From the initial indications, it looks like that prayer may have been answered.

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