On the day the white smoke went up, and we all were waiting, and the poor TV people were riffing, a friend of mine said: “Don’t sweat it, man. It’s not like they’re going to pick another John XXIII.”
Then came the announcement. A name that had not been one of the front-runners. Not even counted as one of the contenders, though he had been last time — Jorge Bergoglio.
And then the name he chose: Francis. In case there was doubt in anyone’s mind, the new Pope told us he was thinking of Francis of Assisi, and not Francis Xavier, a fellow Jesuit, or Francis of Sales, the great confessor, writer, and mystic. He also told us why: A fellow cardinal had said to him just before his election: “Do not forget the poor.”
Francis: The saint who wandered the hills of Italy, homeless and penniless. The saint who spoke of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” the favorite of Buddhists, young people, humanists, and, well, just about everyone. The saint who heard God’s voice say to him: “Rebuild my church.”
Many people think the Catholic Church needs some renovation — and more than that, renewal. The abuse scandals and the cover-ups still reverberate, especially in the United States and Ireland. Of late we’ve had various internal Vatican scandals as well, which don’t mean much in the long run, but show the Vatican bureaucracy as pretty dysfunctional.
And suddenly we have this smiling Pope, who seems so at ease with himself and talks so much about a church that serves the poor and asks the nonpoor to simplify their lives even as it seeks to simplify itself. A church of poverty.
Francis I is a sea change, not because he seeks to pay his own hotel bill, or wears simpler clothes, or singles out women, disabled people, or members of other faiths for his blessing, but because these gestures bespeak something deeper.
Everyone’s favorite saint is the one who tried to renew the church while upholding it. He tried to pull it back to the gospels of Jesus when it had gotten too rich and powerful. He tried to live like Jesus.
Think Mother Teresa. Think streets of Calcutta.
Pope Francis would be the first to say he is no Mother Teresa and no Francis of Assisi. But he began his ministry as a street priest and he has always stayed close to the poor and refused to live the life of a prince of the church or the world. Now he says the duty of the church is simple: to serve.
The College of Cardinals did pick another John XXIII — a man from the so-called third world, where a good priest must think about food for his flock. They picked a man who believes in a church of service, of compassion, of “littleness” — of poverty.
Dorothy Day housed and fed the homeless, lost, and addicted, and lived with them. Mother Teresa begged in the streets, like the people she served, to get her supper. She sent her nuns, without money, to evangelize town to town and door to door, just as Francis sent his friars and Jesus sent his apostles.
That’s a long way from the princes of the church who covered up abuse and are forced to pay out millions of dollars because they have access to millions. Of course, the church is not its hierarchy. It is its message. It is the people praying in the pews.
But the Pope is a pretty important messenger. And a lot of Catholics were sweating when the white smoke went up.
There is a tremendous feeling of optimism and excitement among Catholics — lay people, nuns, and, priests — today. Not because Francis is a secular liberal, but because in his first Mass as Pope he said what Francis of Assisi said: We need to get back to the Gospels.
My oldest son, who is not given to discussion of the church — as far as I knew, he had no interest in the church — told me: “I loved JP II and I think I like this guy. Benny was for your demographic.”
Well, not really. Pope Benedict XVI was a brilliant teaching pope who restored dignity to the Mass. The church needs great liturgy and poverty. But at this moment in history, it particularly needs simple, clear, practical reminders of how to live a Christian life.
Last week, Francis said: “Do not be afraid of tenderness.” One wag put the mission this way: Less dogma, more soup kitchens. Catholics, young and old, are excited by Francis I for good reason. His election is as big a deal as it seems.
Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.