We are living in a golden age of information. Any newshound or junkie will tell you so. More and more, the layers of position and personage that constitute establishment influence are being peeled back to their tendons, revealing the innermost workings of power. The wry cynicism of Twitter has become the lingua franca of information brokers. Public statements are easily picked apart and the official stagecraft of a flag-pinned lapel, a rolled-up shirtsleeve, an of-the-people photo op are all viewed as perfunctory gestures, rote and largely meaningless.
The election of a new pontiff, quite literally a news event gleaned from smoke signals, lands on our doorstep and we are confounded—what sort of man is this Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I? What will his platform be? What meanings should we divine about this man we’ve only just met, waving at us from a balcony?
When symbolism is all you have, as it is with the successor to St. Peter, it becomes a thing of great potency rather than silly window dressing. Francis I may well be the beginning of a change in course for the Church; yes, he is pro-life and anti-gay but, promisingly for a rapidly diversifying church, a South American and perhaps more important, a Jesuit. For an institution that moves as slow as molasses in January, the symbolic power of these two things cannot be underestimated.
The significance of electing the first non-European pope since Gregory III of Syria, who came to power in the year 731, is not lost on anyone, even the most casual of Vatican observers. Forty-one percent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America, where the Church, despite challenges from evangelical and Pentecostal movements, remains very much embedded in the fabric of everyday life. While Benedict XVI spent much of his tenure attempting to revive the faith in Europe, an increasingly secular region where even the most traditionally Catholic countries seem in open revolt against the Church—who could have imagined 30 years ago the Taoiseach of Ireland railing against Vatican’s failings on the floor of parliament?—the election of an Argentine seems to indicate that the institutional powers-that-be are realizing that attention must be shifted to regions of growth.
There were other Latin Americans the cardinals could have chosen—Odilo Scherer of Brazil was a front-runner with insider connections in the Vatican curia—the offices that oversee the day-to-day running of the Holy See. Instead, they went with a man who has held no senior positions within the administrative maze of the Church in Rome. There were purportedly strong feelings among many cardinals after the Vatican leaks affair, which revealed the internal communications of the normally opaque bureaucracy after Benedict XVI’s personal butler released the pontiff’s letters, that a candidate outside the curia was desirable. And they went with a doozy of an outsider—a Jesuit.
The Jesuit order, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish soldier who discovered his spirituality while recovering from battle, has always been a bit of a rogue force within the Church. The order was officially approved by the pope in 1540, at the height of the churnings and upheavals of the Protestant reformation, and came to see itself as something of an adventurous soldering force for Christ (even today, the leader of the Jesuits is called the Superior General). Jesuits became missionaries and explorers—St. Francis Xavier went to India and Japan, while Fr. Jacques Marquette was the first European to map the Mississippi River—and made their reputation as deep thinkers and educators; Georgetown, the oldest Catholic university in the U.S., was founded in 1789 by a Jesuit, Fr. John Carroll.
In short, the Jesuits saw a future for the Church outside the troubled waters at home in Europe. They were proponents of revitalization through expanded horizons, and it is difficult not to think of this tradition as the first Jesuit pope begins his tenure during perhaps one of the most troubled times in church history. The Jesuits reaffirmed a certain fervor for the Catholic faith following the fissures of the Reformation and perhaps that is what the cardinals hope Francis I will do in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where the Church is growing. Many want Francis to focus his papacy on the struggles of the legions of underprivileged in those regions, who are disproportionately effected by disease, not the least of which is the AIDS pandemic. Perhaps Francis will come understand the challenges faced by people grappling with sensible solutions to transmittance of the disease and their Catholicism. Perhaps.
Traditionally, the Vatican has steered clear of the order for the position of pope given the Jesuit tradition of deep intellectualism, which has often translated into a more liberal interpretations of Catholicism. But Bergoglio never jumped on board with liberation theology—which interprets the teachings of Christ as something of a manifesto for the struggles of the poor and downtrodden against classes of powerful people, and was embraced by many Latin American Catholics in their political fights against dictators. Bergoglio shared the opinion of Pope John Paul II and others that the Church should remain pastoral and apolitical, focusing on individual spiritual advancement rather than involving itself in contentious power struggles. Positions like these make him palatable to a Vatican curia that is obsessed with conformity and viewed liberation theology as dangerously close to Marxism.
Despite this, Francis I seems to be a man of the people—it helps that he doesn’t have the mean-looking mug of his predecessor—and the idea that he might focus on the pastoral care of a flock in disarray rather than hammering home points of doctrinal orthodoxy, like Benedict XVI, is attractive. His new name honors St. Francis of Assisi, the saint who grew up in luxury but devoted his life to the poor and lived with them. He takes the bus and eschews luxurious accommodations. He has kissed and washed the feet of AIDS patients. It is difficult to imagine Benedict XVI doing any of those things, and while many of Francis I’s views may be uncomfortably conservative for many Catholics, it is hard to underestimate the power of humility in the leader of the Church at a time like this.
We may only have symbols to go on—names, friendly smiles from austere balconies, and small gestures of good will—to determine what kind of leader Francis I might be. But then again, symbols are his currency. Genuine indications of care for individuals needn’t always be seen as a ploy to divert attention away from past misdeeds and misguided doctrines. Perhaps there is a mea culpa in all this for the sins of the past, and hope for a steady chug toward progress.