This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on March 17, 2013.
I heard those words last week in St. Peter’s Square, as I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with 100,000 other pilgrims, clerics and curious passersby. I had gone to Rome originally for a university program over spring break, and now my companions and I had wound up at a historic event.
Days later, that night in St. Peter’s seems like a dream. Did I really see the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel? Did I really see the Swiss Guard march through the plaza in full regalia? And I did really see Pope Francis — or Francesco, as he introduced himself — appear on the balcony?
I suppose this is how men and women who witness startling events always feel. You’re entirely in the moment as it unfolds, then you later feel exhausted, and finally you sit back and marvel that you were there at all. More than ever before, I recognize that history just happens, catching up ordinary people in its wake.
I was there at the periphery when 115 Catholic cardinals picked one of their peers to take on the role of pope. Francis follows in the footsteps of St. Peter, of course, the fisherman who became Jesus’ top lieutenant. There have been many fishermen at the Vatican in the last two millennia, but Francis takes office at one of the most dangerous moments for the Church since the Reformation.
The ranks of priests, nuns and monks are rapidly dwindling worldwide, due to increased resistance to clerical celibacy and the lack of administrative positions for women. Revelations about the systematic cover-up of child-abusing priests continue to emerge, and Benedict XVI, Francis’s immediate predecessor, seemed less than fully committed to rooting out pedophile priests and their protectors. A great disparity exists between laity (particularly in the Americas) and clergy on a host of social issues, including the role of women in the church, the use of contraception, premarital sex and gay marriage. Catholicism grows increasingly less European, yet the Vatican is not regarded as being fully responsive to the centrality of non-white Catholics to the faith.
In short, Francis is inheriting an unholy mess.
As a historian, I recognize that the Vatican is an inherently rigid administrative institution, slow to admit error and adjust course.[i] (I suppose that’s a drawback to infallibility.) Additionally, I recognize that there is a strong strain of social and religious conservatism among Catholics. If any change is to come, it must come organically. Drastic change cannot be forced upon Catholics, whether they are liberal or conservative, without running the risk of pushing away churchgoers. Nonetheless, Catholics of all persuasions seem agreed that something must be done to refresh Catholicism.
Pope Francis is, I think, a step in the right direction. Although of Italian extraction, Francis is an Argentinean, and so the College of Cardinals must want to reach out to non-European Catholics. Francis is also a Jesuit, meaning that he has been trained in social advocacy techniques and subjected to high intellectual standards since first entering the seminary.
Is Francis a perfect choice for pope? It’s too soon to tell, although his opposition to gay marriage and contraception certainly suggests that the ideological gap between Catholic clergy and laity will not disappear overnight. Still, I have hope for Francis, and that hope is a direct result of being at St. Peter’s Square last Wednesday night.
When Francis appeared on the balcony of the Basilica, he spoke Italian, of which my knowledge is virtually non-existent. But as the Pope spoke, he sounded nervous and awestruck by his new circumstances. This man did not seem like a braggart. And then, after asking for a moment of silence, he bowed before the masses.
The square fell immediately silent for what seemed like an eternity, as Francis maintained his bow. I felt overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of this humble gesture. The Pope, the last vestige of the Roman Empire and spiritual leader for one billion people worldwide, was acknowledging that he is merely the servant of his flock. As I watched Francis, I knew that, at some level, the new Pope sees the need for change in Catholicism.
I’ve been particularly heartened by the news of Francis’s special devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, the mendicant preacher who demanded that clergy eschew luxury and minister to the poor. Apparently, Pope Francis maintained a Spartan lifestyle in Buenos Aires and made the poor central to his ministry. Considering that Jesus mainly preached a message of social egalitarianism and charity, it would behoove the Church to spend more time talking about economic inequality, and less about what goes on in people’s bedrooms. If Francis is the servant-leader he appears to be, then I think we will see a greater Catholic focus on social justice.
In short, I don’t agree with Pope Francis on all issues, and I think the Church will still be slow to change course. With that said, I greatly respect the new Pope. His humility is clear, and his prostration before the crowd at St. Peter’s Square was profoundly moving. May he defend the disadvantaged, whether in regard to sex abuse victims, those trapped by institutionalized poverty, or Catholics living under oppressive regimes.
The Catholic Church has a new pope, and hopefully he is the right fisher of men for the job.
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