Taking the Measure of Pope Francis
Poverty his priority, says CAS prof
One week into his new job, Pope Francis is being hailed by some as a modern saint whose concern for the poor is mirrored in his humility and simple lifestyle. (As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he refused to live in the bishop’s residence, opting instead to live in a simple apartment, cook his own meals, and take public transportation). Others criticize him for being a sellout who as a priest sat on his thumbs—or even cooperated—during his native Argentina’s brutal government repression and killing spree in the 1970s.
The world is still taking the measure of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and BU Today turned again to Phillip Haberkern for his assessment of the 76-year-old pope. A College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of history and a specialist in Christianity’s past, Haberkern had offered us his thoughts before the papal conclave.
For all the criticisms of the Church, from those aghast at its clergy sexual abuse scandal to social liberals disgruntled with its conservative theology, last week’s papal selection showed how fascinated the world remains with Vatican pageantry and leadership. Television cameras were riveted on the white smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel on March 13 announcing that a new pope had been chosen; his debut was live-streamed by newspapers both large (New York Times) and small (Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus-Leader). Closer to home, Dean of Marsh Chapel Robert Hill, a Methodist, emailed BU Today a prayer: “With the world community and religious people of all faiths, we celebrate with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters the election of a new pope, and pray God’s blessing for his ministry in the days ahead!”
BU Today: As Latin America is more Catholic than other regions, what effect will its first pope have on the Church there, and worldwide?
Haberkern: There has been concern about the decline of the Church in Latin America due to the increasing presence of evangelical Protestants (especially Pentecostals) and the economic disparity that prevails in South American nations. It seems that Pope Francis is taking steps to address the latter problem explicitly, which could offset the former over time. Also, Francis’ election offered so many firsts—the first Jesuit pope, the first Latin American pope, and the first non-European pope since 731—that it is hard not to anticipate a surge in the Church, both in Latin America and throughout the world.
What do Pope Francis’ personality and record in Argentina suggest about the course or priorities of his coming papacy?
It is clear that Pope Francis is making poverty his priority. I would expect the new pope to maintain this focus, as an emphasis on the Church’s continuing mission for social justice shifts attention towards the positive impact that the Church can make in the world, rather than focusing on the negative issues that seemed to predominate prior to the conclave. I expect that this will have a positive short-term effect on clerical vocations, and the potential for a longer term impact. As for the scandals that have dogged the Church over the last several years, I have not seen anything yet that suggests how the new pope will address them.
Can we assume he’ll politely ignore American Catholics’ disagreement with the Church’s socially conservative teachings?
I would not make that assumption. While I would not expect Pope Francis to make anything approaching radical changes to the Church’s stances on abortion, the ordination or women, or particularly, gay marriage, I would foresee the possibility of substantive dialogue on these issues. So far, Francis has seemed quite serious about continuing and even expanding conversations with different religious groups and even the media about the possibility of reform in the Church; I would hope that the pope will maintain that commitment as time goes on.
Aside from his nationality, what facet of Pope Francis’ biography is likely to be the most important in his papacy?
I’d emphasize his role as the archbishop of a major metropolis in the southern hemisphere as being more determinative of his agenda. It really seems like the experiences he had in that role have shaped his priorities. I would also mention that his choice of name refers to the early Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier along with the more famous St. Francis of Assisi. The pope’s early statements have suggested that he will dedicate himself to promoting the “New Evangelization” movement within the Church, which seeks to invigorate Catholics and bring the disaffected back into the Church. This emphasis on mission is decidedly Jesuit, and hearkens back to the origins of the order.
Did his first remarks on the balcony give you any hints of what kind of pope we have? Were they significantly different from other popes’ inaugural words?
Much has been made of Francis’ request that the people assembled for his first blessing pray for him, that they might intercede for him with God. While neither Benedict XVI nor John Paul II did this explicitly, both of them noted their unworthiness of being elected to the papacy, and Benedict stated that he would entrust himself to the prayers of the people. John Paul II even went so far as to apologize for his limited ability to speak Italian, and encouraged the assembled crowd to correct him. So, I would see Francis’ first address as in line with the recent popes’ examples, but would emphasize how he, along with Benedict and John Paul, expressed the immensity of the responsibility he now faces.
What do you think the new pope’s first order of business should or will be?
Francis is making poverty his main priority in the short term, but he also appears to be thinking very carefully about whom he names as the Vatican’s Secretary of State. Many commentators think this appointment will help sketch out the new pope’s priorities for internal ecclesiastical reform, but it will take time to assess the real impact of the changing leadership of the Curia.
Pope Francis’ real first order of business is preparing for Holy Week; the pope remains primarily a religious leader, and the Easter season is the high point of the Christian liturgical year. His first Sunday address this past week showed that Francis is an outstanding, if understated, orator, and the Holy Week services will allow him to continue his emphasis on the positive core of Catholic teaching on a global stage.13 Comments