Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pope Francis I: He will not forget the poor

A simple wave and a smile / Pope Francis I 

Until now, there's never been a Francis.

There have been popes named Peter, Urban, Leo and Innocent. And, we've had John, Paul, and John Paul I and II.

Now, we have Francis I. With a little less silk, lace and gold than his predecessors, but no less humble.

Today, the world watched together as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, formally became Pope Francis I, the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, during a Holy Mass inaugurating the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome outside St. Peter's Basilica.

It was a remarkable morning celebrating a universal event.

A crowd estimated by the Vatican of 150,000 tourists, pilgrims and Roman Catholic faithful poured into St. Peter's Square for the two hour inauguration Mass, which was televised to a world-wide audience and, in this age of social media, was live blogged, too. In addition, there were delegations representing 132 countries in attendance, including six reigning sovereigns, 31 heads of state, three crown princes and 11 heads of government.

Before the start of the Holy Mass, the affable pope arrived at St. Peter's Square and greeted the crowd while riding in an open-top "popemobile". He appeared totally at ease and comfortable, beaming his photogenic smile for everyone, kissing babies, even giving a thumbs-up to well-wisher. He took the time to have the popemobile stop in the square so that he could get out and kiss and bless an infirmed man.

During the Holy Mass, the pope received his fisherman's ring, symbol of the pope as a "fisher of men" and a ring that only a pope can wear. In his 14-minute personal homily, reported The New York Times, the new pontiff "offered a passionate pledge ... to serve 'the poorest, the weakest, the least important,' striking the same times on humility as have marked the days since he was elected last week."

The London Guardian noted: "In his homily, the pope compared himself with Joseph, the husband of Mary who was given the mission by God of being her protector, that of Jesus, and that of the church. He said all people should take on this role of protecting those around them and the world itself, and said that goodness and tenderness were signs of strength, not weakness. Power is service, he said."

• A week of joyous excitement

Less than a week ago, amid chilly rain, about 150,000 jubilant faithful jammed the piazza of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, joined by a world-wide TV audience, who watched in anticipation as a new pope was announced.

Joyous excitement, colorful pageantry and a sense of orderliness ~ giddiness, maybe? ~ rang through St. Peter's Square a few minutes past 7 o'clock last Wednesday, in the twilight, as the Basilica bells chimed, confirming what the white smoke billowing out of the the makeshift chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel signaled for everyone to see: a new pontiff had been elected.

Soon, it was announced to the world: Habemus papam.

"We have a pope." 

With those terse but expressive Latin words, there was much joy and celebration among the faithful, both in the Roman piazza, and throughout the world among 1.2 billion Catholics.

Although I am not Catholic (I am a confirmed Episcopalian), I have shared in the jubilation of the new pope. Soon after there was confirmation that a new pope had been chosen last week, I was online with a longtime friend of mine from Costa Rica, who is Catholic. She was thrilled by the news that the newly chosen pope hailed from South America and expressed her hope. Meanwhile, I tried to explain to a new friend of mine from Tunisia, a Muslim, the significance of the moment, which I had been describing in detail to her, as a result of my interest in papal history, pomp and ceremony.

In an institution that is based largely on tradition, the announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio's (pronounced Burr-GOAL-leo) as the "chosen one" to succeed Benedict XVI, who last month became the first pope in 598 years to retire, brought tremendous surprise. Amid the secrecy of the conclave of cardinals inside the Sistine Chapel, it took only 28 hours and five ballots to choose a new pontiff.

• A pope of firsts

Indeed, Francis I has become a pope of firsts. He's the first pope born outside Europe since St. Gregory III 1,200 years ago and the first pope from the Americas. He's the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first Jesuit pope. And, he's the first to adopt a new, unused and non-composed regnal name since Lando in 913-914.

In the spirit of St. Francis of Asisi, whom the new pope honored in taking the name Francis, we've witnessed a sense of poverty, humility and simplicity on display during the pope's first week. At least for now, it signifies a rekindling of energy in the Catholic Church, not to mention a fresh face for its spiritual leader.

Fratelli e sorelle, buonasera: "Brothers and sisters, good evening," said the bespectacled Francis, dressed in a plain white cassock and speaking in Italian, as he greeted the world and introduced himself for the first time from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica last Wednesday. "I would like to thank you for your embrace." He showed a sense of humility, too: "My fellow cardinals went and found one all the way at the end of the world, but here we are."

Among his first acts, the new pope asked the people of Rome (and, for that matter, the world) to ask for God's blessing for him before he blessed them. It was an act and gesture of simplicity, but it spoke volumes.

• A humble man, a man of the people

The former Argentine cardinal, who was archbishop of Buenos Aires, is a humble man, a man of the people. An Argentine by birth, he has Italian roots thanks to his father being born in Italy. He is comfortable speaking in many languages, including Spanish, Latin and Italian. 

A conservative with a common touch, Francis has shown he wants to be close to the people. He's taken time to embrace everyday Catholics and shown the friendly demeanor of a parish priest. Back home in Argentina, he's a fan of "the Saints" of San Lorenzo de Almagro, a top-division Argentine football team in Buenos Aires. He's well known for his outreach to the Argentine poor and the disenfranchised, and for living modestly in a small apartment and cooking his own meals.

In Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio eschewed a chauffeur-driven car for public transportation, which endeared him to his faithful. According to legend, the best way to enjoy a personal audience with him was to hop aboard the bus that he regularly rode to and from his home and the church.

"He forsake many of the luxuries. This is a man of humility," said NPR Rome correspondent Sylvia Poggioli on All Things Considered, in describing the new pontiff in his first hours after being elected. "A pope from outside of the European world is going to be received very well."

Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, in referring to the pope's position as the heir to St. Peter, told the Los Angeles Times: "He's trying to be himself, not to change himself. But at the same time he's completely aware of his role, of his Petrine ministry. He's trying to find a balance."

• Can Francis save and reform the Catholic Church?

For the moment, hot-button issues facing the Catholic Church such as a shortage of priests, the ban on the ordination of women as priests, a sexual abuse crisis in the West, as well as its staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage, have taken a back seat. Hopefully, these issues will not be lost on the new pontiff.

Just a few days into his papacy, one wonders if Francis can save and reform the Catholic Church? I don't know. But, I am hopeful that he can. At least, his outward appearance ~ his magnetic personality ~ suggests a sense of warmth and friendliness, and I think he is reaching out to show openness towards other faiths, too. Patriarchs from major religions were in attendance at the pope's inauguration Mass.

“Given that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence, to each one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God,” the pope told a gathering of world media last Saturday at the Vatican. “May God bless you.” 

During his gathering with world media, the pope said he had chosen his name, Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who worked for the poor and worked for peace. "Francis is the man of peace." He said the name "came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.” The  pope added: "Ah, how I would like a church that is poor and is for the poor." 

I think the new pope will be very invigorating for the Roman Catholic faithful, something that I sensed was sorely lacking in the papacy of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. So far, he's resisted giving up his simple black shoes for the stylish red shoes favored by Benedict, and he wears a plain crucifix instead of something much more bejeweled and ornate. Looking at photo galleries in recent days, the new pontiff has shown he isn't afraid to smile. 

According to many, the future of the Catholic Church lies in the developing worlds of Latin America, as well as in Africa and in Asia. Certainly, I think Francis is a representative of the developing world instead of just the developed First World. And, his choice signifies a shift of the centuries-old gravity of the Catholic Church away from Europe toward Latin America, where 40 percent of the world's Catholics now reside.

The bottom line is this: Can the new pope bring the Gospel message to the world? Let's hope so. Today's inaugural Mass was marked by its simplicity, and the new pope's homily set a good tone for his papacy.

One thing's certain: This pope will not forget the poor.

After all, there's no faking humility.

• A postscript

Editor's note:  On Dec. 11, Time magazine named Pope Francis as its Person of the Year, "crediting him with shifting the message of the Catholic Church while capturing the imagination of the millions of people who had become disillusioned with the Vatican," according to Reuters.

Photograph of Pope Francis I courtesy of the Associated Press.

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