Jorge Bergoglio, the son of Italian immigrants born in Buenos Aires, doesn’t fit the image of a high and mighty churchman in charge of an empire of more than 1 billion people.
He’s a humble man and, at 76, not young. Until quite recently, he rode the bus to work and lived in a small apartment. He cooked his own meals.
After the white smoke poured from the Vatican on Wednesday, and Cardinal Bergoglio took the name Pope Francis, he asked the people to pray for him.
By taking the name Francis — one of Roman Catholicism’s most humble and beloved saints — the new pope announced changes coming to Western Christianity’s largest church, a church in crisis.
The cardinals, in putting their trust in Francis, were directly responding to the challenge laid out by the former Pope Benedict XVI.
Before he stepped down, Benedict repeatedly warned that the church was in crisis, among the hierarchs and the laity. The example on most people’s minds, regardless of their faith, is the hypocrisy among the church leaders who moved sexually abusive priests from parish to parish to cover up their crimes and allow them to continue ruining the lives of children.
Benedict also warned that such hypocrisy had accelerated a drifting faith among the people (and this applies to all Christians), where some attend services and see not a holy miracle but a pageant.
This is endemic, particularly in the stridently secular big-government West that regards Christianity as a competitor, an obstacle to overcome, if not an outright threat to squash.
Shortly after Francis was chosen, I phoned two experts to explore Benedict’s warning in the context of the church’s new leadership. The first was Larry Chapp, professor of theology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.
Answering the call
“Benedict made it very, very clear,” Chapp told me, “that the crisis in the church, from the sexual abuse crisis, to the mismanagement of the Curia, to the crisis in the Vatican, to the crisis of secularism in Western society, all of these crises have one root cause:
“The leadership of the church lacks proper faith in Jesus Christ. They’re not living in a sense an evangelical life of poverty, chastity and obedience. They’re not living a radical life of devotion to the poor and the outcast and the marginal. They’re too concerned with worldly things. Now they’ve picked the man Francis who in a sense will reorient the church toward fundamental things of faith. I think this is critical. Yes, the cardinals responded to the challenge.”
Prior to the selection, there was much talk that the cardinals would chose either an evangelist or a bureaucrat.
“Instead, they elected a man of faith,” Chapp said. “They went and found the holiest man in the College of Cardinals and made him pope. It wasn’t what people were expecting. But they saw his holiness and faith as priority No. 1. And that’s astounding.”
Rod Dreher, a former Roman Catholic turned Orthodox Christian who writes on religion and culture for The American Conservative, said Francis should do something dramatic to address the sexual abuse and other scandals.
“He can have a come-to-Jesus moment with some of these cardinals and bishops who have been the most egregious facilitators of abuse, covering it up.
“If the pope could make an example of a few of those guys and forcibly retire them, send them to a monastery,” said Dreher, “this would send the message to the people and the wider world that the days of covering these things up are over.”
It would allow the new pope to publicly and forcefully come down on the side of the faithful.
“To stand with the people against the aristocratic class, so to speak, within the church ... to show there’s a new regime in town and that the bad old days are over,” Dreher said. “We need a clean break with the cover-ups.”
As the scandals and the cover-ups have cost Catholic leaders the moral authority required to act as good shepherds, the onslaught of a strident secularism, particularly in the West, has weakened Christianity generally.
Is it our ravenous consumerism? Our hunger requiring shiny new objects and ever-stronger sensations?
“Benedict spoke of the dictatorship of relativism, the idea that there is no absolute truth, that truth is whatever you think truth should be,” said Dreher. “This is the acid burning through the spiritual life of the West.”
What bothers him most is his fear that the young have drifted away.
“Social science tells us that among young people, there are many who have no church or faith at all. They don’t feel the need for God anymore. We’ve become so rich, so craving of sensation, that we think we don’t need God, or that the god we think we need looks a lot like ourselves.
“This is the great competitor for the Roman Catholic Church and all Christian churches now: consumerism and narcissism and the almighty self.”
But can Pope Francis hold against such forces?
“The church is countercultural now. It has to be,” Dreher said.
He recalled the words of Flannery O’Connor, the great Catholic writer: “You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.”
Now, Dreher said, “I hope this pope pushes back hard against the age.”
And so do many of us.
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.