One need not be Catholic to get caught up in the tradition and majesty surrounding the election of a new pope. But the election Wednesday of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis is fascinating for reasons that transcend the mere passing of the Papal torch.
The choice of Cardinal Bergoglio is the first of anyone from the New World, and he becomes the first non-European to reign since the 8th Century. That certainly suggests recognition of the shift in the church’s physical locus that occurred as a matter of reality several decades ago.
Equally suggestive is the line on Francis’ resume noting that he is the first Jesuit to hold the office. Among Catholics, Jesuits are the intellectuals. In the U.S. alone, there are more than two dozen Jesuit universities, and you’ve heard of many of them: Georgetown, San Francisco, Marquette, Loyola, Fordham, Creighton, Holy Cross. The nation’s top-ranked basketball team at this moment, Gonzaga, represents a Jesuit university. The new pope was trained as a chemist, and has also taught literature, psychology and philosophy in addition to theology. Francis’ approach to problem-solving is likely to involve a higher level of intellectual discernment than one might expect of those whose professional basis is faith.
It may well also prove to be relevant that the new pope comes to the throne of St. Peter with no Curial experience. The Curia is the Papal bureaucracy, and many who find the church less in touch with real-world concerns blame its inherent intransigence. The selection of a career pastoral cardinal may signify a coming decline in the role of the Curia.
More subtle and mysterious to non-Catholics, but profound, is the implication contained in the name chosen by the new pope. That choice represents Francis of Assisi (ironically the founder of a rival order, the Franciscans), a friar best known for his commitment to work among the poor.
At their best, working among the poor is what churches do. Occasionally they become sidetracked from this mission, either out of a sincere desire to engage in political activity, from a perception that other courses are more socially popular, or because less noble individual motives interfere.
There is nothing in Francis’ life to suggest that he might be susceptible to any of these less altruistic motivations. One must be struck by the degree to which he has eschewed the trappings of his cardinalate: His choice to live in a small apartment, his refusal to employ a servant to cook for him, and his frequent habit to use public transportation. His friends describe him as “a voice for the voiceless and vulnerable.”
That sounds like a good description of a pope.