The medieval machine functioned perfectly this time. After the dove settling on the chimney, and the spume of white smoke, and the hour’s intense wait, Cardinal Tauran recited the hallowed formula, ‘Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: habemus papam,’ with a hint of merriment in his voice and manner. The pre-conclave hum of the past month was a time of possibilities, of hopes, a euphoric interlude. Would it now cede to a gray chill of dismay in face of the chosen one, and to the need to resign oneself to living with a mediocre or objectionable pontiff?
Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s appearance on the balcony, immobile in unadorned white, with no gesture such as Benedict XVI’s raised clasped hands, was a coup de théâtre. Like all good surprises it was retrospectively no surprise at all. Bergoglio was the only name to resist Ratzinger’s at the last conclave, with 10, 35, 40, 26 votes going to him in the four ballots. The journalistic and clerical commentariat can hang their heads in shame for leaving him on the fringes of their speculation.
His election has been universally welcomed, and everybody has their word to say. Hans Küng speaks of a possible perestroika; Claudio Magris likes the new pope’s face: ‘una bella faccia nitida e semplice’; Vittorio Messori claims to have told people privately that the new pope would be Bergoglio. His ten minutes on the balcony provided multiple memes for a chorus of approval. His stress on his role as bishop of Rome, and his reference to Ratzinger as emeritus bishop, not only gives a local and pastoral thrust to his office but tones down its more grandiose associations.
His Italian parentage gives the feeling that after 35 years of a Polish-German occupation the papacy has returned to Italy. Though he is the first non-European pope since the 8th century, and humorously refers to his brother cardinals seeking him ‘quasi alla fine del mondo,’ his homeland Argentina is the second most Italian country in the world and the most European country outside of Europe. Bergoglio is clearly in touch with his Italian heritage, speaking the language naturally, though there was a Hispanism in his promise to pray ‘che la Madonna custodisca a tutta Roma) (La Repubblica’s transcription omits the a). Other slight slips: ti instead of te in the Ave Maria, tanta instead of tanto when he called Rome this tanta bella città. His informal style in speaking to the Romans, ‘buona sera,’ ‘ci rivediamo presto,’ etc., reinforces the image of a simple man, close to the people. For what it’s worth, he also used a Vatican II locution, making it inclusive, when he referred to ‘all men and women of good will.’
Another attractive and unprecedented point is that he is a Jesuit, a reassuring guarantee of intellectual rigor, ascetic lifestyle, effective spirituality. This is posthumous vindication of Cardinal Martini, his supporter in 2005, and of the Society of Jesus as a whole, after years of being treated shabbily by popes.
His chosen name ‘Francis,’ has been abundantly commented on. Patron of Italy, model of evangelical simplicity and care for the poor, and with a mission of rebuilding the crumbling house of God, as in the dream of Innocent III seen in a fresco at Assisi, Francis is a name that spells an ambitious program.
The new pope got the crowd to pray for him silently, in stark contrast to the usual noise (the Italian and Argentinian national anthems and the predictable chant of ‘Fran-ces-co!’). His stress on the devotion of the Argentinians, and especially on devotion to the Madonna, might become too much of a good thing.
Apparently the new pope liked Liberation Theology at first but turned against it (in synchrony with the Vatican); he is no fan of Che Guevara. But he is a pope of the poor, taking prophetic stances on a string of issues.
Two problem areas quickly surfaced. What was his role under the dictatorship in 1976-1983? I think he should make a full statement of the facts, not in a key of defensive self-justification, but even emphasizing whatever failures he may regret. A pope with something in his past for which he asks our forgiveness would be a model for Christians, since ‘a saint is a man who knows he is a sinner.’
The second problem area is his role as regards social issues in Argentina. Perhaps he could apologize for going too far when he said this in July 2010 in opposing gay marriage: ‘Let’s not be naive. It is not a question of a mere political struggle; it is a destructive contestation of God’s plan… a machination of the Father of Lies, seeking to muddle and deceive the children of God’ (see http://www.ontopmag.com/article.aspx?id=6105&MediaType=1&Category=24). In reply President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said: ‘Expressions such as “war of God” or “project of the devil” take us back to the time of the Inquisition, especially coming from those who should work for peace, tolerance, diversity, and dialogue… It sounds as if we were in the time of the Crusades.’ Thousands of young Catholics were mobilized to protest against the new law, as in France in 2012-13, drawing the same criticism in both cases: why cannot the church get them to mobilize for social justice?