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A Francis for Our Time

Pope Francis waves to onlookers from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, March 13, 2013.

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In choosing his papal name, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, invokes the complex example of one of the Church’s most illustrious and beloved saints, Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis, who preferred poverty, or simplicity, to the comfort he was born into in central Italy in the late twelfth century, was an early champion of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor,” an expression with roots in Pope Francis’s native South America in the mid 20th century and now an established term of art in Catholic social teaching.

Pope Francis has long emulated his new namesake by living simply and eschewing many of the trappings of ecclesiastical high office, relying on public transportation, for example, and forgoing the luxury of the official residence of the archbishop of Buenos Aires in favor of a small apartment. His advocacy for the poor is of a piece with his orthodox Christian firmness on social issues relating to marriage and the family, the social institutions that are the primary support for children, the aged, and the vulnerable in general. Cardinal Bergoglio sparred with the Argentine government over same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples. His counting poverty as a social ill should not be misconstrued as sympathy for statist solutions to it or, indeed, as support for any determinate political program.

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Saint Francis’s famed humility was his method for acting on his zeal to reform the Church of his day. “Preach often,” he urged his brothers in religion, according to Franciscan tradition, “and use words if necessary.” That is, his answer to the ecclesiastical corruption around him was first of all to demonstrate the purity that men and women of the Church are called to practice. Then as now, a great stumbling block for those who failed to live up to the Church’s call to moral rectitude was money. In that vein, one of the tasks facing Pope Francis is to bring greater transparency to the Vatican Bank, long shrouded under a cloud of suspicion, and move it toward greater adherence to international banking standards. His unassailable reputation as a man who has tamed the vice of greed should lend credibility to his exercise of a strong hand in this matter.

The need for reform in the Church extends, of course, to the Curia at large, where in too many cases ambition and careerism have tended to drive out the noble desire simply to serve. Here too Francis needs to take bold steps but also to lead by his Franciscan example. Curial reform “will begin with a change of attitude,” as George Weigel noted only a few weeks ago, “not merely a change of structures, important as the latter is.” Such reform is a necessary prerequisite for the Church to be effective in its evangelizing mission, a mission not least of all to Catholics themselves.

In his first address to the city and the world, Pope Francis preceded his blessing of the same with the request that the faithful pray for him. He bowed his head and paused as they did so, silently. It was a remarkable gesture. The challenges facing him are serious and touch not only the world’s largest Christian church but the world itself. The world needs a thriving Catholic Church, and so not only the billion members of his flock but all men and women of goodwill should extend him their moral support.



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