Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Or you may be a practicing Catholic who abhors a lot of the backward policies of your church but still believes in the essential teachings and purpose, which many see as easing life's struggles and promising a heavenly afterlife.
But no matter your feelings about any of this, you can't deny that today was an historically momentous day for this worldwide and still influential institution. As various news outlets have been trumpeting, this pope represents a list of precedents, starting with perhaps the most significant: he's the first non-European Pope since the one considered the first, Peter, who of course ended up in Rome but started out by the Sea of Galillee.
Though of Italian descent (which is partly why he seemed to sail through early voting from the Cardinals, because the Italians didn't block it) he grew up and lived in Argentina. Which means the continent with the largest percentage of Catholics is now represented by a homeboy, so to speak.
He's the first Jesuit pope. Though many "American" Jesuits (i.e. North Americans, which is why I always put that term in quotes when I'm referring to only one section of the Americas) are more liberal, the new pope has been a traditionalist when it comes to a lot of the issues "American" Catholics care about: abortion, contraceptives, ordaining women, priests marrying, accepting gay marriage, etc.
But he is also the first pope to choose the name Francis. Possibly the most popular saint among Catholics, and certainly my favorite, Francis was an eccentric (known as "God's Fool" by some) who represents the most stringent attempt to follow the Jesus of the Gospels by forgoing material and worldly ambition and goods, and not just living in poverty but in harmony with nature, and always serving the poorest and weakest and most vulnerable among us.
By choosing that name, most observers, including this one, feel the new pope is making a gesture to show that his intention is to identify with Saint Francis and what he stood for, which included reforming the church of its material and worldly excesses. Pope Francis demonstrated the humility that was at the root of the original Francis's charisma in some of the first words of his papacy when he asked the crowd to pray for and bless him, asking each do it in their own way silently.
That was another precedent, a pope beginning his reign calling for silence rather than pontificating. The story is that this new pope when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires refused to live in the archbishop's residency and instead lived in a small apartment where he cooked his own food, and also refused the usual limo and driver to instead get around on his own, including walking and taking the bus.
Now whether he can clean up the entrenched Vatican power structure and reform at least the material excesses and outright criminal activity of the cabal that has been running the bureaucracy there is a big question. And whether he has enough humility to listen to the people that really are the church, many of whom would like to see women ordained and priests be allowed to marry and other reforms to what the conservative cardinals call church teachings but are really just traditions started to consolidate the power of particular groups of early church leaders, is another story.
[PS: Damn. Just read something about this guy's complicity in Argentina's "dirty war" as opposed to the small number of Catholic clergy who fought against the generals and in some cases were murdered for their efforts. Guess more will be revealed.]