Note: My syndicated column of a couple weeks back. I sometimes forget to archive them here right off, but better late…
On March 13, the white smoke let the waiting world know the conclave of cardinals had elected a new pope, following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on 28 February.
The new pope is a Jesuit, which is the first interesting thing about the election. The Jesuits, though technically in subordination to the pope, have throughout history often functioned as a separate center of power within the Roman Catholic Church. Though Pope John Paul II was known for demanding, and getting, the subordination of the order, for the first time the two centers of power will be united in one person.
The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio let it be known he wished to be called Francis, following the precedent established by John Paul I of picking a name never worn by a previous pope.
This he said, was in honor of the beloved St. Francis of Assisi, called by some cynics, “history’s only practicing Christian.”
“The man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man,” the Pope said. “How I would like a poor Church, and for the poor”.
Francesco d’Assisi was born a privileged brat who grew up to be a carouser, a brawler, and a wencher until he had a conversion experience during his service as a soldier for his city. Many men go to war and come home crazy. Francis went to war and came home sane.
Though a lot of people at the time must have thought he was pretty crazy. Francis, who by the way was never ordained, preached sermons to the birds and animals he loved, and wrote hymns to “my brother the sun, my sister the moon.”
There is also the famous story of how Francis went to Egypt to try and convert the Sultan. He failed but the Sultan was so impressed with Francis that he sent him away laden with rich gifts, which Francis used to help the poor.
Interestingly, some Sufi writers, members of that mystical brotherhood within Islam that claims they seek the truth behind all religion, have a different take on the story. According to Sufi writer Idries Shah, Francis was not on a mission of conversion, he was paying a visit to a brother in the same lodge for an evening of conversation.
This is interesting in the light of the good relations Pope Francis has with both the Islamic and Jewish communities in his native Argentina.
But there is another St. Francis that means something to the new pope, St. Francis de Sales. As a young priest, Bergoglio was mentored by a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, Stefan Czmil of the Salesian Order, and as a result knows the Byzantine liturgy.
St. Francis de Sales is by the way, the patron saint of writers and journalists, known for spreading the faith through pamphleteering and gentle persuasion.
The new pope is going to need the aid of St. Francis de Sales. The Roman Catholic church is under sustained assault from within and without.
The election of a traditional conservative Catholic is not going to please leftist atheists who want a strong Christianity to disappear, or yield to the cult of the almighty state.
It’s going to discomfort American cafeteria-Catholics who wish the church would endorse a “one from column A and one from column B” approach to doctrine.
The new pope is going to have to deal with the elephant in the room, the still-unresolved issue of clerical child abuse. And sooner or later someone is going to have to address what is increasingly obvious but never mentioned; that there is an ongoing, more-or-less organized campaign by pedophiles to infiltrate the Catholic clergy. (If you don’t think pedophilia is organized, Google “NAMBLA,” but prepare to lose your lunch.)
The new pope may or may not be able to get a handle on the recurring problem of corruption involving Vatican finances.
Whatever he does or does not accomplish, a lot of people are going to be disappointed.
I wish this new pope well. Evidence suggests he is a good man, and we need good men in positions of spiritual and temporal power. For those who expect miracles I recommend contemplation of two things.
One, any center of power and wealth is subject to corruption, for the simple fact that we are men, fallible and corruptible. The Church has always known this and has always maintained an awareness that there are two churches: one temporal and subject to the sins of our nature, the other spiritual which is the ideal men strive for.
The other is that in the Church we have an organization whose central purpose is to last until the end of time – literally. While acknowledging that change happens, and hoping that it might be for the better, one does not want to go around making irrevocable changes for what may turn out to be passing fads.