My dear people of St. Mary’s:
“Brothers and sisters … You know that the duty of the Conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems as though my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world to get him. But here we are.”
With those words, the pontificate of Pope Francis began. The news came as a surprise to all of us, since the former Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio was not high on the list of any of the papabile the news media told us to expect. And so many firsts! The first pope from Latin America; the first Jesuit; the first to take the name of Francis; the first from the southern hemisphere; the first to be ordained after the Second Vatican Council; and the first native Spanish speaking pope in more than five-hundred years.
Pope Francis, even before appearing on the balcony to greet the faithful, placed a call to his predecessor, Benedict, the Pope Emeritus. By the time you read this, they will have already had a private meeting. How interesting to think of a conversation between two bishops of Rome! It says so much that Pope Francis wanted one of his first acts to be leading the people of the world in prayer for Benedict XVI.
I am sure that by now you have read the new Holy Father’s biography. Born in Buenos Aires in 1936 to Italian immigrant parents, he took a degree in chemistry before discerning his vocation. Ordained as a member of the Society of Jesus in 1969, he served as a novice master, theology professor, and the Provincial (regional superior) of Argentina for the Jesuits. He became rector of the seminary where he had studied, and also served as the pastor of a parish. He studied in Germany and obtained a doctorate in theology, and worked as a confessor and spiritual director in El Salvador and Spain. In 1992 Blessed John Paul II named him an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, and in 1998 he became the archbishop of that diocese in his own right. He was elevated to cardinal in 2001, and also served as president of the Bishop’s Conference of Argentina for six years.
His reputation for simplicity and personal holiness is well-known, and is certainly connected to his selection of the name Francis. As archbishop, he chose to live in a simple apartment with an elderly bishop and he cooked and cleaned for them both. He used public transportation instead of a private car, and frequently wore a simple priest’s cassock on his daily journeys through the city. His love for Christ has manifested itself in a great compassion and concern for the poor, and has also made him a zealous advocate for life issues, and a vocal opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage.
The media is expecting Pope Francis to be a reformer, and I believe they are both right and wrong. We should recall that St. Francis of Assisi, the great reformer of the Thirteenth Century, had a great love of the papacy, and a very strong personal commitment of obedience to the pope and fidelity to the teachings of the Church. I believe we shall see Pope Francis inaugurate a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and initiate a great drive for spiritual initiatives in the church. But the “reform” the news media is hoping for and expecting, a change in fundamental Catholic Church teaching, will not (and, indeed cannot) happen. In short, the Pope will be Catholic. And as Catholics, we must begin right away to assist him with our prayers. In the words of the old prayer for the Pope: May the Lord preserve him, give him a long life, make him blessed upon the earth, and may the Lord not hand him over to the power of his enemies.