Francis, S.J.

Wednesdays are my day off. I got up late. I was on my second cup of coffee when CBS News broke in, bringing white smoke and booming bells in the campanile of St. Peter’s Basilica. I was on my second egg-salad sandwich when the former Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J. of Buenos Aires stepped in front of the city and the world.

Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, the protodeacon with the privilege of announcing such things, spoke in Latin that echoed badly on the CBS feed. I needed the interpreter to tell me it was Bergoglio, which was the first surprise. With the election over so quickly, I had feared a barreling tide for the Milanese cardinal, Angelo Scola, who kept crawling around the top of all the good bookie lists.

I do not hold anything unique against Scola. But I did not want the papacy to revert to an Italian possession. This is an international church, now more than ever. Nor did I want a man who would be both the third archbishop of Milan (Pius XI, 1922; Paul VI, 1963) and fourth patriarch of Venice (Pius X, 1903; John XXIII, 1958; John Paul I, 1978) elected pope in only a century. We need to keep moving on, and I’m pleased that we are.

I did not need an interpreter for the rather electrifying name, Franciscum, which came through clearly enough. Francis he would be. According to Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, Bergoglio’s choice is in deference to il Poverello from Assisi, not the Basque Jesuit evangelist Xavier.

It is not technically “Francis the First,” as I keep hearing. Albino Luciani specifically stipulated himself as Joannes Paulus Primus (John Paul I). Pope Francis did not do so.

He is the first Jesuit pope. I admit some tribal pride here: my college degree is from Loyola University Chicago. And Francis, son of Italian immigrants but a Buenos Aires native, is also as much the first American pope as Dolan or O’Malley would have been. Argentina is in South America, and, as I always want to tell people who speak overmuch about “American this” and “American that,” South America is America.

He is 76. That means that, considering that modern popes from Leo XIII (aged 67 when chosen in 1878) onward have generally been elected at ages 63 to 68, we’ve gone to the extremes for the third time in a row. John Paul II, 58, represented the young extreme (as did Benedict XV, 1914, aged 59), while Benedict XVI, 78, represented the elderly extreme (along with John XXIII, 76). Francis, like his immediate emeritus predecessor, will have a reign of years, not decades.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio was known for his attention to the gulf between rich and poor. He lived in a small apartment rather than the palace available to him. He is said to cook for himself. He pointedly shunned his limo, favoring public transit.

When Francis emerged onto the loggia, his balding head and inscrutable, abstracted half-smile reminded me of no one so much as Pius XII, a Roman-born aristocrat and the last pre-Vatican II pontiff. But I noticed right away that Francis was not wearing the red mozzetta, the short choir-dress cape of watered silk or ermine-lined velvet that popes usually don for their first public appearance.

Nor did he wear the liturgical stole. He only put it on when he gave the blessing, and then he promptly handed it off to an aide. The image was that of a matter-of-fact, plainclothes pope, someone who really would rather be riding a bus or making his own dinner right now instead of standing here, doing this.

He began his opening remarks with a quiet “good evening,” joking that the cardinals had gone to the edge of the world just to get them a bishop. He led some prayers for Benedict, then asked the crowd to “do me a favor” by blessing him first before he blessed them. Francis bowed for several seconds while the crowd prayed. He concluded by asking everyone to please have a good night’s rest.

It had a different flavor from Benedict’s reflections on being a worker in the vineyard: humble, yes, but you could hear all of Ratzinger’s commas click into place. It was also different from John Paul II, the former stage actor, whose apparently spontaneous but precisely polished introductory speech had a “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” ring to it.

I won’t lie. I was thoroughly and completely charmed. I want Francis to succeed. I want to believe. And yet…and yet…

…I’m not naive. He is no liberation theologian. Latin American Jesuit does not always mean Grande, Ellacuria, or Martin-Baro, and in Francis’ case it does not. There is controversy over whether Bergoglio appropriately supported Argentinean church workers against the military junta. And he is unfriendly to the LGBTQ movement. Much of this is to be expected. Radicals rarely become popes or pope-makers.

And I want particularly to guard against being taken in by emotion or symbols, by either pageantry or deliberate departures from pageantry. The Catholic Church, whatever else it may be, is consummate theater, the best in the world.

Jesus told the first Francis to rebuild his church. Now we can only wait and pray, with everyone else, until today’s Francis reveals what he believes Jesus is telling him.

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About Justin Sengstock
Justin Sengstock is a contributor to the books "Hungering and Thirsting for Justice" and "An Irrepressible Hope," both published by ACTA in 2012. His writing has appeared online at Young Adult Catholics, Catholic Majority, Chicago Catholic News, and the original blog of the Chicago Underground Library (now Read/Write Library). Justin earned a B.A. in theology from Loyola University Chicago.

4 Responses to Francis, S.J.

  1. Kate Ward says:

    Very smart reading of symbolism here, Justin. I hadn’t caught the gesture with the stole. Praying for a humble, Godly leader for our beloved Church!

  2. Thanks for this, Justin. I was looking forward to your “take” because of your knowledge of Papal history. I’m in the same place as you, more or less, feeling cautiously optimistic and also very curious about what is to come. This also struck me:

    “The Catholic Church, whatever else it may be, is consummate theater, the best in the world.”

    It reminds me of when I was a kid, and I asked my mom why people on movies and TV shows were always Catholic (as I was old enough to realize that Catholicism was not the dominant flavor of Christianity in the U.S.). She told me, “It’s because it’s the most dramatic.” Yup, Catholicism makes for good theater, and beautiful soap opera weddings. ;)

    • And you know, for all of those Catholic TV characters, somehow they never get it quite right: whenever the Law and Order detectives want to talk to the priest, he’s always wearing a full cassock and lighting candles deep in the back of a dark stone church. (Apparently not only do priests do nothing else all day, but Catholic churches are never, ever made of modern building materials.) Or the priest wears green to a funeral (green?!?!), where his prayers use “thee” and “thy” a lot. Or like how in horror movies, even if Catholics have absolutely nothing to do with the storyline, they’ll start playing re-mixed Gregorian chant and stuff to set the mood. *sigh*

      Anyway, clearly the theater aspect of our church is abundantly self-evident.

      And yay for curious, cautious optimism. :)

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