On 11 February 2013, due to age and infirmity, Pope Benedict XVI announced to the world that he would resign his ministry as the Bishop of Rome and spiritual head of the 1.2 billion Catholics. Catholics and non-Catholics alike benefited greatly from his papacy, which was characterized by theological and liturgical renewal, critical engagement with non-Christian intellectuals, new ecumenical and intercultural initiatives, serious reforms aimed at bringing to justice clerics guilty of sexual abuse, and reaching out to victims of sexual abuse to assist in their healing. Due to his extraordinary theological contributions as a priest, bishop, and pope, many believe that he will one day be named a doctor of the Church.
The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a member of the Society of Jesus, is a significant event in the life of the Church and the world for a variety of reasons. Pope Francis brings a new set of strengths to the Petrine office. Those who have known him for years speak of his humility and good humor as well as his tender love for the poor. Immediately after his election, Pope Francis joked to the 200,000 faithful gathered in Piazza San Pietro (Saint Peter’s Square) and down the Via della Conciliazione (Road of the Conciliation) that his “brother Cardinals went almost to the ends of the earth” to select a new pope. Indeed, he is the first pope from the Americas. After greeting the crowd, he immediately invited them to pray for his predecessor, indicating his profound respect and fraternal affection for Pope Benedict XVI.
I expect that during his Papacy, a substantial emphasis will be placed on reconciling men and women to God and with each other. During his first Angelus message on Sunday, 17 March 2013, Pope Francis stated:
Let us not forget this word: God never ever tires of forgiving us! “Well, Father what is the problem?” Well, the problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness. He never tires of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness. Let us never tire, let us never tire! He is the loving Father who always pardons, who has that heart of mercy for us all.
This timeless Gospel message is needed in our world, which is so clearly wounded by personal sin, unjust laws, and international conflict.
Through his words and example, Pope Francis is calling us to a great concern and care for the Biblical anawim: the materially poor, widows, orphans, and the most vulnerable among us—the unborn. On Saturday, 16 March, Pope Francis told the media representatives gathered in the Paul VI Hall: “Ah come vorrei una Chiesa povera e per i poveri” (Oh, how I would like a poor Church and one for the poor). In his life as a Jesuit and later as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, solidarity with and care for the poor was a priority. As Cardinal Archbishop, Bergoglio gave great witness to evangelical poverty when he renounced some of the material comforts normally associated with his office. Instead of enjoying the comforts of the episcopal residence—a car and driver, etc.—he chose to live in a simple apartment, cook his own meals, and use public transportation to get around Buenos Aires. This is a man who doesn’t just “talk the talk” but “walks the walk.”
In this essential task, Pope Francis understands well that it is not the job of the Church to conform to modern notions, such as the Marxist paradigm of revolution for the sake of “progress,” for Jesus was called a sign of contradiction. According to the Jesuit Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Canada, the then Father Bergoglio, during his service as the Argentinean Jesuit provincial, took a “very strong stance that the Jesuits should stay out of political issues and certainly not take up the liberationist theology.” Liberation theology was a school of thought that emerged strongly in the early 1970s in Central and South America when some theologians attempted to integrate Marxist political doctrines with the Gospel. This synthesis was obviously untenable due to the intrinsic contradictions contained in such a proposal. In 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, condemned liberation theology as a “novel interpretation of both the content of faith and of Christian existence which seriously departs from the faith of the Church and, in fact, actually constitutes a practical negation.” Class warfare is not a Christian solution to the perennial problem of poverty.
In recent history, each pope has emphasized a particular Gospel value. Pope John Paul II invited the Church and the world to rediscover an authentic conception of human freedom and liberty in response to assaults on it ranging from libertine social attitudes to totalitarian governments; Pope Benedict XVI did likewise with truth in response to the postmodern denial of it. In these inaugural days of his pontificate, Pope Francis invites all of us to revive our understanding and expression of Christian charity: Gospel love.