Pope Francis I: Reformer or Maintainer?

Habemus Papam!

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Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is now Pope Francis I.

Yeah, I’m a few (several) weeks late on the announcement. But it’s still momentous for two immediate reasons:

  1. First pope from Latin America.
  2. First Jesuit pope.

As with the election of every new pope (though there have only been two since I’ve been around), everyone is trying to predict what he’ll be like. The Catholic Church isn’t exactly known for its tendency to turn on a dime, so whatever grand hopes folks have for radical changes from an already-elderly pontiff in a Curia established over 35+ years, those hopes need to be tempered.

That being said, Pope Francis has already shown early signs that things may not be business-as-usual. Which is good, because at this point–John Paul II and Benedict XVI certainly had their strengths, but administration was not one of them–the Curia has become the very definition of corrupt. Even the Cardinals acknowledged it:

John Paul II’s notions of heroic priesthood lay in tatters, his episcopal appointments too often a collection of hot-blooded and imprudent ideologues who love to parade around in yards of silk and fine lace. Eight years ago the gathered cardinals would have smirked at talk of a church in crisis; this year they spoke of it themselves.

This article does a phenomenal job of summing up the aspirations of all Catholics (and non-Catholics!) who still hope that the Church can right itself, and do what it was meant to do: serve those no one else will.

The article nails it with this line:

Catholics really want to like and believe in their leaders. As has been demonstrated, it doesn’t take much. Catholics are not so much in search of world-class theology or grand international gestures as they are of authentic holiness and personal integrity.

(Corollary: the same can be said for our politicians. Just be a decent person instead of a viper out for blood)

Like so many top-heavy institutions of late, I feel that the Catholic Church has endless untapped potential that its leaders of late have ignored, leading to infighting and corruption and misplaced priorities. Why exactly do we care so much about whether or not to sanction pre-Vatican II High Masses? Why is this even an issue when it’s clear that the Curia cares more about preserving its own hold on power than, say, firing predatory priests or the bishops and cardinals who protected them?

While I sincerely doubt Pope Francis will set the Church back on the road to Vatican II collegiality–as awesome as that would be–I am very hopeful that he will at least reorient the Church back to putting the poorest and marginalized first. I think this has a realistic chance of happening, for a few reasons:

  • He’s a Jesuit. It’s kind of what they do.
  • He has a history of living the pauper’s life: taking the train to work, paying for his own apartment, shirking the traditional papal garments for plainer, more modest ones.
  • In perhaps the most concrete break with tradition, he did not give all the papal staff the rubber-stamped form letter that they should simply remain at their posts. Rather, he told them to remain “for now”, until more permanent accommodations are made.

The last one may not seem like much, but remember: we’re talking about an institution in which Tradition (with a capital T) is pretty much the same as law, and any breaks in those Traditions are serious business. For him to simply imply that changes might be coming is pretty much a guarantee that they are.

Ultimately, we can’t be sure what kind of pope he’ll be until all is said and done. While I don’t expect him to turn tail and embrace Vatican II, I do have hope that he’ll swing things back towards a healthy ecumenical middle ground. And all politicking aside, his down-and-dirty approach to leadership is something that I think is desperately needed after so many decades of intellectual standoffishness. At the end of the day, if his primary focus is the poorest of this world, I don’t think I or anyone else can fault him for that.

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About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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