Since his recent election as Pope Francis, the former Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been well received. His leadership and his relationships with the public signal a genuineness and humility not often seen among princes of the church.
Even the successes in public relations of John Paul II occurred largely on his own terms and with the iron strength of someone who once had to carve out a position for his church behind the Iron Curtain. Pope Benedict XVI, marked by aged sagacity and intellectual depth, often failed to connect with the public and with many of the faithful in his own church.
‘On Heaven and Earth’
Immediately breaking with formality and decorum, the new Pope was at once seen as a breath of fresh air in a centuries-old, sometimes stale institution.
While extending much goodwill to the new pontiff, people are still somewhat uncertain on how to read Pope Francis ecclesiastically and theologically.
The book “On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century” — translated from Spanish into English only in this past year and published by Doubleday — might be useful.
A few years ago, Cardinal Bergoglio engaged in a lively discussion on matters of faith, life and society with Rabbi Abraham Skorka. In 29 chapters, these conversations acquaint us with the new Pope’s thought, ranging from God to the devil, from euthanasia to abortion, and from science and globalization to poverty and the Holocaust, to name only some of the topics discussed.
‘Cultural and spiritual mestization’
In surveying these conversations, we meet in two chapters a challenge that both Canadians and South Americans have had to face: the encounter of different ethnic and national groups in society, which in South American parlance is called “mestization.”
In Chapter 19, “On Politics and Power,” and chapter 21, “On Globalization,” the Spanish word metizaje is used as a “blending of races and cultures.”
In a historical retrospective, Cardinal Bergoglio observes that when Argentina opened the doors to immigration, different faiths entered society where before the Roman Catholic Church had reigned supreme.
Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, feels this process of “cultural and spiritual mestization” is not something to be abhorred.
Rather, he considers such diversity, where people of different races and faiths “live as brothers,” an Argentinian “virtue.” With a keen eye, he observes that the nation “did not arise on the margin of religion, but in its light,” with Evangelicals, Orthodox, Jews, Catholics and many other faiths living “together very well, very contently.”
He recognizes William Morris, an evangelical Protestant, as having shaped Argentinian education in significant ways.
Against this pluralistic background, the Roman Catholic cardinal and the Jewish rabbi address the issue of globalization and wrestle with how national identities are maintained amid respect for shared human values.
Bergoglio rejects a globalization that is viewed as “a uniform billiard ball.”
He rather envisions it as “a polyhedron in which everyone is integrated but each player maintains his particularities, which at the same time enrich the others.”
Bergoglio rejects a fusing of nations if this means a loss of identity; for him, the North American notion of a “melting pot” holds little more than poetic value.
The notion of “mestization” suggests itself for Bergoglio as a helpful corrective grown on Latin American soil, where cultures can encounter each other without forced fusion (although they not always have).
“I like it,” the cardinal concludes, “when all the different communities appear during festivities,” and lauds his government’s policy during bicentennial celebrations, when “they made room for all the communities, showing our diversity.”
We have yet to see whether Pope Francis will succeed in bringing the world’s great religious faiths and Christian denominations into a productive dialogue and relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.
Yet his exposure to and practical experience in the multi-ethnic and multinational society of South America — and his sensitivities in recognizing the need to respect differing identities — augur well for a more fruitful encounter of many faiths and shared work on human social challenges worldwide.
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.