Pope Francis 1, formerly known to the world as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, is not what most would consider an inspired choice for pontiff. At age 76, Francis is not expected to revolutionize the church. He will continue most of the policies of his predecessor, including attempts to reform the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy.
Pope Francis I, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, is a priest of holinesss and tremendous modesty of manner – a man who, until now, has taken the bus to work. His challenge is clear. He needs to learn from Benedict XVI’s greatest success – and his greatest failure. The success was the restoration of reverent, mystical worship to the centre of Catholic life, an achievement that has inspired a dynamic generation of young Catholics. The failure was Benedict’s inability to reform the corrupt structures of the Roman curia, which should be recognised as the rotten core of the abuse crisis, and which is likely to have loomed large as an issue in the conclave. The historic decision to choose a Pope from the New World will perhaps make that task easier.
Bergoglio’s choice of the name Francis is indicative of both his personality and temperament. He is known in Buenos Aires for his extreme humility — taking the bus to work, doing his own cooking, and living in modest quarters. Francis of Assisi is best known for his vow of poverty and extreme piety. The Church could have done worse than choosing a man so humble and plain.
But the choice of Bergoglio should also be seen as a very conservative choice. This is not a man to change much of anything. He won’t grant women the right to be priests, or give a thumbs up to contraception, or approve any of the reforms urged on him by some American Catholics and the non-Catholic liberal media. Francis is very conservative on cultural matters, having issued a towering denunciation of Argentine politicians who considered a gay-marriage bill. Neither does he subscribe to “liberation theology.” However, he has his problems with capitalism as well, and he should be popular with advocates for the poor around the world.
It may be an insult to refer to him as a “caretaker” pope. But one should see that term in the best possible light. Scandals in the Curia as well as the far more serious pedophilia scandals have thrown the Church off balance. Quiet reforms behind the scenes are needed to right the ship, and until that happens, the conclave apparently believed that naming a pope with Bergoglio’s qualities was the best course at this time.
The first New World pope will no doubt energize and empower the Latin American church. For the rest of the world’s Catholics, there will be a period of sizing up as the faithful get to know Pope Francis and seek to understand his message.