Few events capture the world’s attention like the election of a new pope. Perhaps this is because it is one of the last few truly secretive events left, as one reporter noted this morning. Or perhaps it’s because Catholics account for a reported 1.2 billion people -- about 1/6 of the world’s population.
Hopefully, it’s at least in part, as Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker wrote, because “even non-Catholics can find solace in the barricade that men and women of conscience erect between human beings and the abyss of relativity.” Whatever the reason, the Catholic Church had us on the edge of our seats this afternoon, as the white smoke billowed from the chimney and we waited for the unveiling of the new pope.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected by the College of Cardinals to be the Catholic Church’s new Holy Father. And his papacy is already one of firsts. He’s the first pope born in the Americas, and the first non-European pope in over 1,200 years. He’s the first Jesuit order priest to be appointed to the papacy. He’s the first pope to choose the name Francis -- presumably honoring the tradition of both Francis Xavier, priest of the Jesuit Order and Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order of priests.
Though the significance of his papacy is yet to be seen, and the reason for his chosen name yet to be explained, a look at this cardinal’s life gives continued hope of what the Catholic Church can find in him.
That the Catholic Church has been plodding along through several rough years isn’t news to anyone. Between the sexual scandals, divisions within the Church hierarchy and among the laity, and rapid shifts in cultural thought -- which have ushered in nearly universal dismissal of absolute truths -- the Catholic Church has not been as loved as it once was. But the election of Cardinal Bergoglio signifies reason for hope and unity as the Catholic Church regains her strength.
Bergoglio is someone who “personally straddles the divide between…liberals and conservatives in the church,” John Allen wrote for the National Catholic Reporter earlier this month. As a cardinal, he was observed to have lived an extraordinarily simple lifestyle -- choosing to live in a small apartment instead of the bishop’s residence, reportedly cooking his own meals, and preferring public transportation to the limousine offered to him.
Allen goes on to note that Bergoglio has a strong record of defense of the poor and the rights and dignity of workers. He has publicly deplored the unequal distribution of resources among peoples. Furthermore, Allen wrote, “Bergoglio is seen as unwaveringly orthodox on matters of sexual morality, staunchly opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception.”
He had a prayerful, pastoral nature, which called upon people to grow in personal holiness, “to return to the humble teachings of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes,” according to an Italian profile of the new pope, as “a way to Jesus,” which Bergoglio told the people would bring a truer understanding of the dignity of every human life.
This witness of his life and leadership offers broad appeal between the oft-divided Catholic Church and the various observers of the Church and her expression of teachings. And it beautifully highlights the fullness of the Catholic Church’s teachings lived and proclaimed.
If my text message and email inboxes and Facebook feed are any indication of the reception of the pope, Catholics are already falling in love with Pope Francis. And he will need that love and support as he shepherds our Church. Viva il Papa!
Meg T. McDonnell is the communications director for the Chiaroscuro Foundation. Formerly, she was a religion teacher in a Catholic high school.