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What can we expect from Pope Francis?

13 March 2013

9:51 PM

13 March 2013

9:51 PM

Some striking facts about Pope Francis. Fact one: the Cardinals have elected a 76-year-old with only one lung. This undermines the idea that Pope Benedict stepped aside so that a younger, dynamic CEO-style figure would take charge, someone who could handle the exhausting job of running the Church. Instead the Cardinals went for a man of great individual piety who has lived a long and holy life.

Fact two: we have the first Jesuit Pope. Traditionally, the Jesuits have been seen as a potential rival power base to the papacy. Now they are the papacy. The Jesuits have been, in recent decades, associated with the left, even the wacky wing of the Catholic Church. Bergoglio is not — let’s be clear — the sort of anti-tradition radical that Catholic trendies are praying for. He recently spoke out against gay adoption and is by all accounts an orthodox Catholic on the other subjects that preoccupy liberals in the developed world. In contrast to many Latin American clerics, he is not a disciple of liberation theology, the quasi-Communist movement that was so powerful in the 60s and 70s.  But he does seem to be a figure for whom Catholic teaching on ‘social justice’ is paramount – and his choice of name is surely in part a tribute to St Francis of Assisi, whose emphasis was on the humble life, as well as to St Francis Xavier, the famous Jesuit saint.

Traditionalists are already sweating about the new Pope’s liturgical orthodoxy. Some economically liberal, free-market orientated Catholics, meanwhile, might now be as concerned as the lefties were at Ratzinger’s elevation in 2005.  What will the new Supreme Pontiff say about the financial crisis? Many Catholic free-marketeers have overlooked Benedict’s sterner criticisms of unbridled capitalism in the last few years. They might find that harder to do under Pope Francis. He is not a politician, of course, but then Catholicism in Latin America is the voice of the poor. Pope Francis will represent them.

Fact three: Francis I has already shown himself to be an explicitly Marian Pope. That is, his Catholicism is deeply informed by a devotion to the Virgin Mary. He gave not one but two blessings in the name of Mary last night, and his first visit this morning was to a Marian shrine. This is very Latin American, and something of a contrast to Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger was, of course, devoted to Mother of God, but that wasn’t as profoundly embedded into his spirituality as it was with John Paul II. He was not an instinctive Marian. The Argentinian Pope Francis is. This may have ecumenical consequences — Catholicism and Protestantism have historically been divided over the importance of Mary — particularly in the spiritual battleground of Latin America, where new charismatic and Pentecostal groups have grown at Catholicism’s expense. But this could be source of unity rather than division: new charismatic movements are not anti-Marian, necessarily, in the way that European Prots are. Might Pope Francis find a way of bringing new world evangelicalism and Latin (Marian) Roman Catholicism together?


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