Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Who is Pope Francis - the artist formerly known as Cardinal Bergoglio?

I hear the 115 Roman Catholic Cardinals selected a new pope – a Caucasian conservative male Roman Catholic Cardinal.  Many pundits found this a surprising choice.  I’m not sure why.  There were only 115 from whom to select and they’re all male, varying shades of conservative, and about 90% Caucasian.  It’s like reaching into a refrigerator that contains 90% vanilla pudding and being surprised that you grabbed vanilla pudding.  This time it’s just Jesuit rather than Franciscan, Dominican or Diocesan brand vanilla pudding – but it’s still vanilla pudding. 

There’s little information about him other than a small set of repeated messages bouncing around in an echo chamber – some of which are contradictory.   

He took the bus, lived in a simple apartment and cooked for himself – all good things.  But wait - he is moving into the 10 room Papal apartment, getting a cook and staff, and will take a helicopter for the whopping 15 mile journey from Rome to Castel Gandolfo.  (By the way, having made the trek to Rome from a hotel by the pope’s Castel Gandolfo residence, I’m puzzled by the helicopter ride and also confused how it supports his “love the environment” message from today’s homily, but sometimes I’m easily confused.) 

Some say he sided with the military junta and economic elite that abused and oppressed the poor during Argentina’s “Dirty War.”  But wait – others say he actually helped the marginalized and poor during the same war.

Many say he is genuinely humble because he checked out of his own hotel room and asks people to pray for him.  But wait – others say he is merely a highly skilled politician and his humility is just a well-staged act.

He is conservative and doesn’t like homosexuals.  But wait - he washed the feet of AIDS patients.

He is an educated Jesuit, trained in chemistry.  But wait - he seems to uphold doctrinal orthodoxy over scientifically proven facts.

Somehow, I read all these conflicting accounts and hear the quibbling nuns from the Sound of Music.  They could be describing Maria or Pope Francis, “(S)he is gentle!  (S)he is wild!  (S)he's a riddle!  (S)he's a child!  (S)he's a headache!  (S)he's an angel!  (S)he's a girl!”  Oh, scratch that last one.  Ix-nay on the irl-gay thing.

Is this really a case of selecting a guy with a limited public record or a case of selecting a guy who carefully controls his public image, repeatedly feeding the press the same limited assortment of sound-bites?  I don’t know.  But I do know from undergoing press training that repeated sound-bites are trademarks of a carefully groomed public image.

I also know that before Benedict resigned until Francis’ election, the press was occupied reporting the deluge of stories related to corruption in the Curia, bishop accountability, clergy sexual abuse, Vatileaks, and the Vatican Bank scandal.  Suddenly the press has been enrapt with an image of the pope much like humble and loveable shoe-shine boy (Google the Underdog cartoon for reference). 

Without any reforms addressing the church’s core issues around governance, inclusion or equality, all those stories about the church’s problems magically began evaporating from the press.   But the problems themselves have not disappeared. 

One sexual abuse survivor sent me a series of notes expressing frustration that the world sat on the edge of its seat watching the color of smoke and seemed to forget the hundreds of thousands of men and women raped by priests as children and the dozens if not hundreds of bishops who enabled this to happen.  This still remains unresolved.  Having a pope who wears a smaller, less ornate miter does not heal their wounds, or restore their dignity. 

I am humbled by the thousands of people who visited my blog since Benedict XVI announced his resignation and Francis was selected.  I feel as though people are looking for me to say something.  However, I really don’t know what to say about Francis other than maybe this:  Until significant visible effective measures are taken to address the church’s abundant issues, you can call this guy Francis, Francis I or Pope Franky, but my friend George is going to call him Pope SOSO CCLXVI (Pope “Same old – Same old” the 266th).  The Who might sing, “Meet the new pope; same as the old pope.”  I guess until I see appreciable progress on any of the issues, “I’ll get on my knees and pray we don’t get fooled again” by someone skilled in public relations.

In the meantime, I wonder, what is it we’re waiting for from the pope?  We know Jesus calls us to care for the poor and marginalized.  We know that about 5 million children die from poverty each year.  Did we really need to wait for a pope who dressed in simple cassocks rather than elaborate, expensive lace, capes and furs before we followed this instruction? 

The U.N. estimates that 70% of the world’s poor are females.  Are we going to wait for Francis to address the causes of systemic poverty especially amongst women, or are we going to do that regardless of what Francis does?

We know we need to protect children and hold clergy accountable for abuses.  Even if Francis doesn’t, are we going to let the issue drop and abandon the abused?

We know there is no theological justification for mandatory clergy celibacy and that this could be changed by the simple stroke of a pen.  Even if Francis doesn’t address this, are we going to stop advocating for married clergy?

We know there is Scriptural and historical evidence of female apostles leading worship.  Even if Francis doesn’t acknowledge or address this, are we going to stop advocating for women whom the Spirit has called to ordination?

We know that Pope John XXIII’s papal commission recommended that the church adjust its birth control stance because science and theology indicate it’s not justified and prima facie evidence from married couples indicates it damages numerous marriages.  Even if Francis doesn’t address this, are we going to stop advocating for women’s health and healthy sexual relations between married people?

We know many of the church’s issues stem from an outdated, ineffective governance model.  Even if Francis doesn’t address church governance which permits clericalism and clerical abuses of sexuality, power, and substances, are we going to tacitly permit these injustices to continue or use our prophetic voices to demand reform?

We know most of the bishops’ funds to help the poor come from government sources and that most of the faithful's money donated to the church actually pays for church salaries instead of helping the poor.  Regardless of what Francis does, are we going to continue to fund such a financial model?

I read many promising things about Francis and other things that give me pause.  But while the passage of time allows events to sketch his character, what is stopping us from doing what we know is right?  Let us all say, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).”


  1. I have been saying that when it comes to the new guy, I have a lot of hope. I hope he will listen to the Church and I hope he is willing to be led by the Spirit. Like you, I have some mixed emotions.

  2. I don't think you can underestimate the fact that despite the media 'soundbites' and the desire to shift focus, that this pope is different in his actions. He also asked us to pray for him, he declined the red robe and isn't wearing pink shoes. I agree that it will likely be business as usual and STRONGLY agree that we are called to continue on our Christian paths and duties - I don't see anyone who's excited about a humble pope ready to bow out of social justice activism. I was hoping he'd pick the name John XXIV - that would mean something to me - but it is obvious there are no Vatican II advocates left in office at this time. Maybe it all was a political move to distract us, but I am choosing innocent until proven guilty. I'll deal with the disappointment, and stay on my journey to minister to the poor and the outcast. Thanks, as always, for calling us to think more critically, my friend!

  3. "We are the ones we are waiting for" We need to lives arising from our Baptism of ministry to those most poor, marginalized, most in need of healing. Lives of justice making and peace making. And all acts of compassion that each individual hears the call to live. WE do not need the Pope to act, we need to walk the Path of Jesus.

  4. Oh thank God! Thank you so much for this! I have been making myself ever-so unpopular by voicing my reservations over Francis. It's so nice to see someone else say it.

    I just CANT get my hopes up over Francis. I remember getting them up over Benedict as the "green Pope" and blah blah woof woof; whoopse look how that turned out! Francis, as Pope, has said some very fine things. Good. I will accept that he meant them when he puts them into action and not before. I cannot continue to have my heart broken from top to bottom by the Church hierarchy; Francis doesn't get anywhere near mine until I know I can trust him with it!

  5. What concerns me is exactly this, that we shall be so overawed by his presence that we will forget our own responsibilities. The mission belongs to us all