Pope Franciscus: The new Bishop of Rome 25 April 2013

On the 13th March 2013 the Roman Catholic Conclave elected a new Pope, following the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope is arguably the single most important religious leader in the world. We examine  Pope Francis and what it might mean for the Catholic Church.

Who is the new Pope?

On the 13th March 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the Archbishop of Rome and the Pope of the Catholic Church. His chosen name, Franciscus (Francis in Anglophone nations).

Pope Francis is notable in many ways. He is the first Latin American Pope. Many felt this was long overdue – considering that Latin America accounts for 438 million Catholics, nearly double that of Europe and amounting for 41% of Catholics worldwide. Despite his Latin American birth, Pope Francis has Italian roots. His father migrated from Italy to Argentina before his birth 1936 in Argentina.

He was raised in the town of Buenos Aires and entered his local seminary while still a teenager. From a young age, the future Pope was drawn to service and worship. Once he graduated, he opted to join the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, and after a period of years as a novice, he became a member, subscribing to the vows of the brotherhood. His determination in joining the Jesuits reveals his deep devotion – the vows went above and beyond those of a priest.
In 1969, at the age of 33, he was ordained into priesthood. This was followed by several more years of study and service resulting in his appointment as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998. Much like his predecessors, Bergoglio was a capable theologian, but perhaps unlike his most recent predecessor, academia alone held little interest for him. He applied himself to the position of Archbishop with fervour, and began a series of changes that would make the Catholic Church a significant part of life in Argentina. One such change saw the number of priests working in the slums and most deprived areas of Buenos Aires double. Upon becoming Pope, he would speak of a ‘poor Church for poor people’, a concern he demonstrated from his earliest days of leadership.

Pope Francis’ election was not without detractors however. Days after being selected, murmurs arose around his handling of the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ (a period of covert and bloody attacks by the Argentinian state against left-wing activists). The kidnappings took place in 1976 (thought not yet Archbishop, Bergoglio occupied a senior position within the Catholic Church and most importantly the Society of Jesus), and five months after their disappearance the two priests were found, although having been subjected to imprisonment and abuse. One of these priests, Orlando Yorio, had accused Bergoglio of doing nothing ‘to free us, in fact, just the opposite’. Although Yorio died in 2000, the second of the two priests, Franz Jalics, spoke after the new Pope’s election, strongly defending him from any accusation that he had colluded with the Argentinian State in their imprisonment. Despite brief media coverage of the issue, it made very little impact upon Pope Francis’ image.

Pope Francis has also demonstrated a desire on building relationships, both within the Christian faith and beyond it. Comparisons to Pope John Paul II are perhaps well founded. Pope Francis is clearly a supporter of interfaith, and as is clear from his early days as Bishop of Rome, he understands the power of symbolic actions. For many Muslims, the most defining aspect of Pope John Paul II’s tenure is when he publically kissed the Quran (to the dismay of many more conservative Catholics). By comparison, Pope Benedict XVI’s comments regarding the Prophet Muhammad severed relationships with Muslims and attracted condemnation. Pope Francis is clearly more of the former than the latter, and he has already attracted media attention with headlines such as “Pope washes feet of young Muslim woman prisoner” (The Telegraph).

His election was a surprise for some quarters, especially given the reason behind Pope Benedict’s resignation was old age – Pope Francis is 76, merely two years younger than Benedict when he was elected Pope (John Paul II was still in his fifties when chosen to lead the Catholic Church). Nonetheless, given Pope Francis’ election in the fifth round of voting in the Conclave, it is clear he was not a particularly difficult choice

He now leads the largest Christian church in the world, and outlined his mission as creating a ‘poor Church for poor people’.

The new Pope speaks Spanish, Latin, Italian, German, French, Portuguese, English, Ukrainian and Piedmontese.

Reformer or Traditionalist?

Since his election, Pope Francis has been keen on breaking tradition. It did not take him long to do so. His choice of name alone was symbolic; no previous Pope has held the name Francis (after Francis of Assisi).

He abandoned the usual embroidered clothes worn by the Pope, wearing instead the plain white cassock. He chose to journey home as Pope not in the chauffeured vehicles reserved for him but on the coach he arrived in, alongside dozens of other cardinals.

The Pontiff has also chosen to stay in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the Papal residence. On Easter Sunday he again deviated from tradition by travelling without the usual bullet-proof glass ‘Pope-mobile’.

Perhaps the most important break from tradition however was the foot-washing ceremony of Maundy Thursday. Archbishops would usually wash the feet of 12 priests, mirroring Jesus’ washing the feet of his 12 disciples. The act showed humility and the importance of service. Rather than conducting the ceremony in St Peter’s Basilica or a cathedral of Vatican City, he decided to conduct it (as he did sometimes as Archbishop of Buenos Aires) in a prison. Prisoners instead of priests, including women, one of whom was a Muslim, had their feet washed by the new Pontiff in the ceremony. The message was clear – Pope Francis intended to serve a wider church, especially those at the margins of society. The action also echoed those of Pope John Paul II, who once conducted the ceremony with homeless men.

The small gestures of change alongside the more significant changes all speak of a Pope confident in his mission. There is no doubt that his actions would have dismayed traditionalists within the Catholic Church, although it seems the Pope has few concerns about receiving criticism.

A Jesuit Pope

Pope Francis is the first Jesuit Pope in history. A Jesuit is a member of the Society of Jesus, a religious order founded by Pope FrancisSaint Ignatius of Loyola (died 1556). The Saint was once a Spanish soldier but after an injury in battle and a religious epiphany, he focused his efforts on the spiritual. Soon he had a small following, and with six other individuals he swore vows of poverty, chastity, pilgrimage to Jerusalem and, should the latter not be fulfilled, any apostolic work requested by the Pope.

The order focused on charity, education and serving the poor. The Society of Jesus was adaptable, and keen to be so. They abandoned what they saw as the prohibitive practices of other medieval religious orders (such as a common uniform, regular penances and so on) and introduced extended periods of training for their members before becoming full members. These resulted in a highly trained, highly capable and extremely adaptable religious order, part of the reason they are sometimes called ‘God’s Marines’.

As the Society grew, it played in an important role in the revival of Catholicism which had suffered in the fervour of Reformation. The Jesuits produced educated theologians who could defend the Pope and Catholic Church, but also sent missionaries as healers and preachers across Europe who helped play a role in cementing Catholicism in their localities – by the time Saint Ignatius died, there were thousands of Jesuits spread across the world.

As a Society that had sworn allegiance to the Pope, they were generally tolerated (and at times strongly supported) by the Vatican authorities. That said, not all Popes were so keen on their work. By 1773, Pope Clement XIV abolished the order, although less than half a century later Pius VII re-established the Jesuits. The reason for their dissolution stemmed both from political pressure and a concern about the growing influence of the Jesuits. Pope Francis would later joke that he was tempted to take the Papal name Pope Clement XV as ‘revenge’ for the persecution of Jesuits under the previous namesake.

By the twentieth century, the Society of Jesus had become the largest Catholic religious order, and were particularly noted for their evangelical success – with Jesuits based in Latin America, Asia and Africa.  In the US, the Jesuits are particularly noted for establishing universities and centres of education.

Their mission however, largely remains the same – education, scholarship, chastity, abstinence, social work, charity and service to the Pope.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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