An inspired choice with Pope Francis
We can’t say what role divine inspiration played in the selection of Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now Pope Francis — to be leader of the Roman Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion members.
But it was certainly an inspired choice from a political and public-relations perspective.
That is not meant to be in any way as derogatory toward Pope Francis, who so far appears to be as humble, unassuming a church leader as his chosen name suggests.
He took a bus to one of his first official papal functions, Vatican officials said, rather than ride in a limousine provided for him.
We join billions of people around the world in hoping that Francis is successful in dealing with the church’s many problems. They include sexual-abuse scandals involving the clergy, declining church membership and reduced numbers of people interested in the priesthood, especially in Europe and North America.
Even so, the choice of Bergoglio for the papacy seems to be a brilliant strategic move for a number of reasons.
Most obvious is the fact he is the first pope in a millennium not from Europe, and the first ever from the Western Hemisphere.
An estimated 40 percent of the church’s members reside in Central and South America, and many more live in the developing countries of Asia. Choosing Bergoglio as pope is a signal to millions of people that the church recognizes it must show more interest in, and provide more assistance to, its faithful outside of Europe.
Additionally, because he is the first Jesuit ever to be chosen as pope, and someone well outside of the Vatican’s inner circle, not to mention his long history of working with the least powerful of Argentina’s people, there is at least hope that he is better equipped to deal effectively with the church’s sex scandal than his predecessor was.
Moreover, his rejection of the most visible trappings of the church hierarchy — both during his time as cardinal in Buenos Aires and since his selection as pope — give hope to countless people that his primary concern will be parishioners, not church politics.
Choosing a papal name that honors St. Francis of Assisi and his efforts in Argentina as a champion of social justice add to that expectation.
But Francis is not without his critics. Some Argentinians say he did little to protect people and outspoken priests during the dark days of Argentinian dictatorships in the 1970s and early 1980s.
And anyone looking to Pope Francis for wholesale reform of Catholic doctrine is likely to be sadly disappointed. He has been an outspoken critic of abortion, gay marriage and the ordination of women. In fact, he has gotten into heated public disputes with Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner over several of these issues.
Much more will become known about Pope Francis and his leadership tendencies in the coming weeks and months. For now, it appears that his selection signals an important but gradual change in the church’s leadership rather than a radical shift.
And, for an entity that traces its movements in millennia, or at least centuries — one that often seems more interested in opulent ceremonies and public appearances than people — that may prove to be a truly inspired change.