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Taking the Measure of Pope Francis

Poverty his priority, says CAS prof

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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
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

13 Comments on Taking the Measure of Pope Francis

  • Valmai Rogers on 03.21.2013 at 6:50 am

    God, through the cardinals, has certainly selected this Jesuit Priest, to be His instrument of reform in the Catholic Church. He has a vow of poverty, and his life style, will inspire so many. May God inspire and protect him.

  • bu parent on 03.21.2013 at 7:24 am

    Thanks for the story.

    One point of objection: 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.

    I think one has to look at the source of this criticism to determine whether or not it is true. There is an article from the Vatican Press office, clearly denying these charges: which can be found here: http://visnews-en.blogspot.com/2013/03/response-to-accusations-against_15.html.

    The last line of the defense reads: “The accusations pertain to a use of historical-sociological analysis of the dictatorship period made years ago by anticlerical elements to attack the Church. They must be firmly rejected.”

    • Aaron L'Heureux on 03.21.2013 at 10:11 am

      I’d much prefer a third party, objective source to invalidate such a claim as the Vatican Press Office has a slight, inherent bias.

      • bu parent on 03.21.2013 at 11:04 am

        Unfortunately, some of the so-called objective third parties are not being objective at all, which is why I bothered posting.

        “Tell a lie often enough, and it becomes truth. That seems to be the premise for the constant references to “persistent doubts,” “raising questions,” “alleged charges” and other weasel-word qualifiers the press uses about the new pope.” (taken from here: http://news.investors.com/ibd-editorials/032013-648753-media-repeats-innuendo-about-pope-francis-as-facts-fail-them.htm

        In another age, when unproven information was presented as fact, it would have been called calumny. The whole point is to plant doubts in people’s minds about the pope’s integrity, and in doing so, discredit him and the Church. This too is a form of bias.

        • Aaron L'Heureux on 03.21.2013 at 2:21 pm

          From what I’ve read, the issue stems from a lawsuit filed in 2005 that raised questions about actions taken with regard to the government and two priests who were detained. Case failed, charges dropped, differing viewpoints on what happened from the two priests but one is now dead so there is little means of validating any of the claims objectively.

          So as it stands something might have happened but there was insufficient proof for Argentinian courts to act which suggests that nothing happened.

          NPR, the Washington Post, and Wikipedia (through multiple other sources) were my sources.

          Calumny is a touch more than what’s going on here. Sure, the media likes to embellish, but they are still reporting on events that took place. A case against him did exist with these claims.

      • Valeria on 03.21.2013 at 12:26 pm

        Soy argentina y puedo decirte que esas acusaciones no están comprobadas. Se trata de una cuestión política impulsada por los Kirchner. En los 70′s muy pocos podían pararse frente a un dictador con una pistola en su escritorio. Su trabajo como superior jesuíta no tenía relación con el poder político. Los sacerdotes jesuítas secuestrados niegan las acusaciones contra Bergoglio http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1565468-el-sacerdote-jalics-nego-que-bergoglio-lo-haya-denunciado.

  • John Gaffey on 03.21.2013 at 8:50 am

    Ecellent journalism. So badly needed. BU Today cetainly is exemplary!

    • Anonymous on 03.24.2013 at 10:33 pm

      I’m sorry, John, but this is terrible Journalism. I don’t mean to be the pessimistic one, but if you’re going to do a story on, “Taking the Measure of Pope Francis,” you don’t go around interviewing non-Catholics.

      I understand the continuity of interviewing the same guy they interviewed for the last piece, but what is it with interviewing non-Catholics on Catholic matters? Not objective or good reporting in any sense. However, unfortunately, it does seem to be a bit of a trend in mainstream media these days so it is not surprising that BU Today jumped on the bandwagon. If the BU Hockey team wins a trophy, then you interview the coach, some players. You wouldn’t go interview the BU Baseball coach about that win. It would make no sense. So too, BU Today should not be interviewing non-Catholic professors about “Taking the Measure of Pope Francis.” What authority, background, or experience does this professor have to put Pope Francis into measure?

      Alas, this is but a trend I have seen with BU Today. They put up a story about a world-happening, but add a little spin to it. If it has to do with the Catholic Church, the largest punching bag of the media, then they interview someone who has no right to be quoted as an expert on the topic. Why not interview the Catholic Chaplain? Or Peter Kreeft, who lives right down the road?

      Try copy pasting the questions asked into a word document and then going through them yourself. Do these sound like loaded questions? Yes, most definitely.

      • Katherine on 03.25.2013 at 1:16 pm

        I completely agree. There is a Catholic center right on campus that always has several students in it who would be more than willing to talk about their feelings about the new Pope. I’m sure the reporter thought he was doing a good job by asking a professor of religious studies, but the answers given show that it wasn’t a good choice. Any Catholic, even those who don’t agree with the Church on all issues, will tell you that the Pope can not change the “what” of our faith (what our doctrine is), only how we go about leading Catholic lives.

  • KittensInTheTree on 03.21.2013 at 10:17 am

    Not all American Catholics disagree with the church’s social teachings. I, for one, agree with them wholeheartedly. I think if you’re going to be a Catholic, then be a Catholic and accept the fact that the church is unchanging. People that expect ‘reform’ clearly know nothing about the church. If you want ‘reform’ become protestant. It has been the same in the past, now, and it will be the same forever.

  • anastashiawanjiku on 03.21.2013 at 10:37 am

    Thankyou God almighty for your humble servant Pope Francis.Help him to Lead your people by your Grace.

  • SBA on 03.25.2013 at 3:44 pm

    I do not understand the animosity shown towards Prof. Haberkern in the comments sections of these articles. He has dedicated his life to studying these issues, and I can attest as a current student that he does not speak in platitudes – he knows what he is talking about. To discount his perspective because he is not a Catholic is absurd.

    Indeed, I am not sure what his detractors expect from a piece such as this. The Catholic Church, whether divinely guided or not, is an man-made institution that must respond to the same challenges as any other organization with power and wealth. While their mission might be different from a business or a nation, the Vatican still needs to do the same basic things: provide services, fundraising in one form or another, and PR. Asking a professor of religious history to address how the new pope will handle challenges to the church’s authority, efficacy, and prestige in this increasingly secular world seems to make perfect sense to me.

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