Few Catholics — and even non-Catholics — could resist getting caught up in the mysterious ritual this week that installed the latest leader of the Catholic Church. Some viewed it with awe; others with cynicism. But it is a wondrous pageant from any perspective.
When the white smoke cleared, an Argentinian Jesuit emerged to take his place at the Vatican as Pope Francis I.
There has long been a push from many Catholics inside and outside of the Vatican to draw upon South America, which boasts the world’s largest population of believers, for the papacy.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was also a contender in 2006 when German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger won the post and became Benedict XVI.
Now 77, Bergoglio clearly enjoys the same respect he did seven years ago.
Bergoglio is a latecomer to the church hierarchy. It was only 15 years ago he became archbishop of Buenos Aires. As a Jesuit, he typically shunned the limelight and focused on more down-to-earth matters such as helping the poor. Even in his more elevated role, he has maintained a modest life uncommon among his colleagues.
As a church leader in Argentina in the 1970s, Bergoglio would have shared many of the same experiences as slain Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Many South American countries were ruled by U.S.-backed dictatorships during that era. Romero openly spoke out on behalf of the poor and oppressed in his country, and paid the price at the point of a gun.
In Argentina, up to 30,000 citizens were murdered by military juntas between 1976-1983. Bergoglio was less vocal against the regime, but he denies allegations of collaboration.
Many see the ascendency of Pope Francis as a sign that things may change in Rome. For one thing, there is hope among Latin Americans that Romero will be canonized, moving him a step closer to sainthood.
More importantly, Bergoglio’s election signals a more lenient attitude towards liberation theology, a South American philosophy that focuses heavily on social justice.
Francis I may hold fast to church doctrine on sexuality, but he is considered to be more pragmatic than his predecessors. And, according to Wednesday’s Guardian, he may also be inclined to shake up the church structure.
“Unlike some of the other cardinals, he has been untarnished by the various scandals that have convulsed the Catholic church, and is thought to want to make reform of the curia — the church’s governing body — a priority.”
In any event, his earnest, lifelong advocacy for the poor is certainly a change of pace from the usual rhetoric.
As Archbishop Romero put it in 1979: “We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed at night with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways.”