“Go and repair my Church, which is falling into ruins.”
Good advice for a Catholic these days: The Church is in need of some repairs, if not a renovation. It’s been undercut by scandals and unpardonable cover-ups. It’s losing active membership in Europe and the United States. For what it’s worth — and perhaps it’s not much — some of its teachings are increasingly out of touch with modern sensibilities and moral intuitions.
But that advice — to go and repair the Church — is not new. St. Francis of Assisi, who had just abandoned his possessions and was living as a beggar around Rome, was given these orders during a mystical experience in a dilapidated Italian chapel several centuries ago. Eventually, Francis repaired the chapel’s walls, but he’s remembered more for repairing the larger Catholic Church. He strove to ground the Church in Jesus’ simplicity and humility, attending to the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized.
Yesterday Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis, taking St. Francis’ name. Perhaps Christ’s guidance for the Italian Saint applies to the new Pope too: The new Pontiff, like his namesake, stands in a Church that is falling down.
The Pope will have new, modern challenges on his hands, but he brings new life and perspective to the job. Born into a humble family of Italian immigrants and railway workers in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis is the first Latin American cardinal to become the spiritual leader to the world’s largest faith. He is also the first Jesuit Pope.
Pope Francis brings firsthand experience to the job. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he lived in and amid poverty. Known to many of his neighbors simply as “Padre Jorge,” Pope Francis forsook the luxurious bishop’s mansion for a simple apartment. He cooked his own food, took the bus and tried to emulate the simple living to which St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, aspired. Latin America has the greatest economic inequality in the world, and Pope Francis was exposed from an early age to the economic and political instability that has contributed to this injustice. These experiences and his Ignatian charism have guided his thought: As archbishop and cardinal, he urged the faithful to act toward alleviating suffering and the oppression at the margins of society. Hopefully, he will focus on the needs of the poor, the oppressed and the excluded in the future as well.
And yet the Holy Father will not be the reformer that some had wished for. A conservative in the mold of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has a clear record of inflammatory statements about gay marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples, saying they are the devil’s work and “not part of God’s plan.” Anger like this is at the root of the division and bitter polarization that exists in the Church today. If he is to truly repair the Church, the new Pope should, at the very least, end the derision with which he has approached gay rights in the past, among other issues; at best, he would start the process of reform that would bring Church teaching into line with the thrust of contemporary moral intuitions.
While Pope Francis may not be a reformer, he can still rebuild the Church’s image and refocus its ministry toward perfecting the implementation of Christ’s loving and inclusionary message in this world. While the Church is living through trying times, it has been in worse situations in the past. Pope Francis has the chance to be the necessary leader to take the Church into a new era and, like his patron, work to rebuild God’s Church in love and unity. St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us.
Pat Gavin and Alex Honjiyo are seniors in the College and School of Foreign Service, respectively.