April 1, 2013

A Pope of Firsts and One Who Faces Challenges Ahead

WASHINGTON (CNS) - "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam!"

Those are the customary words with which the cardinal protodeacon greeted the world at the end of the papal conclave -- "I announce to you great joy: We have a pope!" He then announced as St. Peter's new successor Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentine who had not been on the list of front-runners.

Cardinal Bergoglio is the first Jesuit pope, the first American pope (South American, of course), and the first to take the name Francis.

This last "first" is a significant one, and it appears to be intentional. If you don't count as unique the name John Paul - which Pope John Paul I took as a combination of his two immediate predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI - no pope has taken a completely new name in 1,100 years. The last was Pope Lando, who became pope in 913, when it was still not necessarily expected for popes to take names other than their Christian ones.

At first there was speculation as to whether he wasn't just giving a tip of the hat to the great Jesuit evangelist St. Francis Xavier, who toiled for converts in lands hostile to the Catholic faith. But it now appears clear that the pope's intention was to invoke St. Francis of Assisi, who is known especially for living in harmony with nature and who is revered among Catholics and non-Catholics.

The saint from Assisi was a gentle yet wildly zealous and energetic soul. Jesus appeared to St. Francis and asked him, by way of an apparition, to "rebuild my church." After a failed attempt to do this literally - with stones and other building materials - St. Francis ultimately reinvigorated the Catholic Church by founding the Order of Friars Minor, better known to the world as Franciscans.

Pope Francis comes from a different religious order, founded centuries after St. Francis' death. But he is still the first priest from any religious order to become pope in almost two centuries. He is unlike his immediate predecessors in having taken a solemn vow of poverty. And the personal poverty and simplicity for which he is known - and also his commitment to the poor - are a family trait of the Society of Jesus.

Throughout his career as a pastor, Pope Francis lived like the poor while serving them as a priest. Modern confessors often succumb to the temptation to act as psychiatrists and not priests. Modern parish priests who serve the poor face the temptation to be politicians and not priests.

Pope Francis appears to have hewed closely to his priestly vocation without succumbing to that temptation. Typical was his decision, after his election as pope, to shun the papal motorcade, preferring to ride the shuttle bus with his fellow cardinals.

Pope Francis also is a fitting choice for his geographic and cultural origins. Forty percent of the world's Catholics live in Latin America. Nearly 40 percent of Catholics in the United States (and more than 50 percent of Catholics under 30) are Hispanic. Their influence in the U.S. is even greater if you look at who actually goes to church. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 64 percent of Hispanics who identify as Catholic attend church regularly, far more than the rest of us.

At the same time, there is attrition among young Catholics here and in Latin America. And one of the important jobs for the new pope is to evangelize them.

Pope Francis faces an enormous challenge in bringing the Gospel to the young in spite of the many obstacles created by the church's recent scandals. May God preserve him, bless him and deliver him from the designs of his enemies.