First thoughts on Francis ("the first" not necessary)

By Bryan Cones| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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The conclave managed to surprise many with a pope of firsts, and, it seems, a perfect "compromise" candidate: from Latin America but with Italian parentage, a "conservative" (hard to say what that means) but a simple man devoted to the poor, a Jesuit (a bit of a surprise here), and, perhaps most importantly, a current diocesan bishop.

1. From Latin America: As a member of the faculty at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago noted, Pope Francis' election completes the "globalization" of the papacy; it will be difficult to ever allow the bishop of Rome to be "just" the bishop of Rome. I think it may be a long time before there is again a European pope. The "global" papacy will be the enduring legacy of Pope John Paul II, and we will see how Pope Francis manages it. At the same time, I don't think Francis ever used "pope" last night; he spoke instead of being "bishop of Rome" and directly addressed the "church of Rome." I think that is a marvelous first sign. 

2. Conservative: Although Francis is on record as being opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion, so was every other man in the conclave. Being "against" abortion and same-sex marriage is a required qualification on an episcopal resume nowadays. What matters here is emphasis: As archbishop Bergoglio was known more for his simplicity of life and devotion to the poor than he was for his opposition to the Argentine government on the two hot-button issues. What remains to be seen is which issues he will draw attention to in his ministry as bishop of Rome.

3. A Jesuit: I still don't know what to make of this. My suspicion is that it is more or less irrelevant in terms of how he got elected, but I would say it is relevant in terms of formation. Jesuits are trained to be thinking people but also people of discernment. I know I have benefitted from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and other forms of Ignatian spirituality, and I am encouraged to have the bishop of Rome formed in that tradition of spiritual discipline.

4. A diocesan bishop: This is where, I think, Francis may truly make his mark. The conclave bypassed curial candidates for someone from outside, far outside. Though Bergoglio sat on a number of congregations, he was not a member of the inner circle. His initial appointments in that area will be telling.

As one who was quite disappointed in the election of Joseph Ratzinger, I have to admit I find the choice of Bergoglio inspired. I was delighted by his easy manner--once he got over the shock of the first moments--and truly moved by his request for prayer before blessing "the people and the world." That alone to me is a signal about his attitude toward the people of God, and I look forward with hope to how he will serve the church as bishop of Rome. 

I would be remiss if I failed to point out one other thing: The cardinals have chosen another "short" papacy. Pope Francis is already 76, and though in good health, he has had his struggles (he has had one lung removed for example). Now that Pope Benedict XVI has demonstrated that a pope can resign without the world ending, I expect Francis to do the same when the time comes. But the obvious fact is that the cardinals do not want another 26-year papacy, and so passed over even candidates in their 60s.

FINALLY: There is no need to call him Francis "the first" until there is a Pope Francis II. So let's just call him Francis.