My initial surprise at the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in mid-February quickly faded into indifference and disdain. At the same time the world watched as the ritual practices of electing a new pope were put into place, the archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, resigned for ‘inappropriate sexual conduct’ with other priests, five prominent Catholic American bishops opposed the Violence Against Women Act, signed by President Obama on March 7th, and the Los Angeles archdiocese settled 4 Catholic priest sex abuse cases for $10 million. What difference would a new pope make in a system that seemed incapable of addressing the sins and failings of its leaders?
But then the announcement came that a new pope was elected and that he had chosen to be called Pope Francis I. I was intrigued. As the cardinals settled in behind closed doors to begin the process of voting, oddsmakers began setting the odds for papal names. Would the new pope choose Leo, the odds-on-favorite or Gregory? Perhaps Pius or Peter? Francis didn’t even make the list. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis I, the first ever Jesuit to be elected as pope, chose a name whose symbolism cannot be overlooked. Sara Dover, writing for CBS News, notes that “(i)n Catholic tradition, St. Francis of Assisi had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ, who told him to rebuild his church. In light of the scandals that have tarnished the Church, from its financial troubles to widespread allegations and cover-up of sex abuse, the name may carry special significance.” St. Francis of Assisi renounced all forms of wealth and lived a frugal and simple life. From all indications, the new Pope Francis I, has eschewed the trappings of materialism, as well. He chose to live in a simple apartment rather than the archbishop’s palatial palace in Buenos Aires, took the bus to work and cooked his own meals. A sliver of hope took hold. Could things – would things be different with this pope?
Obviously, it’s too early to tell how the Catholic church will shift under this new pope. Or if it will in any significant measure at all. Early reports indicate that Pope Francis is progressive – not hesitant to wash the feet of people with HIV/AIDS, but also conservative – opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of women. In President Obama’s congratulations, he said, “As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he (Pope Francis) carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years — that in each other we see the face of God.” I hold on to only a sliver of hope, but pray that with this new Francis, Obama’s words will ring true.