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The First American Pope
Catholicism’s turn into an evangelical future

Pope Francis I, March 13, 2013.

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George Weigel

Here, in a statement that then-cardinal Bergoglio had a significant hand in drafting, is what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called the “New Evangelization” in synthetic microcosm:

The Church of the 21st century cannot rely on the ambient public culture, or on folk memories of traditional Catholic culture, to transmit the Gospel in a way that transforms individual lives, cultures, and societies. Something more, something deeper, is needed.

That “something” is radical personal conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ and an embrace of the friendship he offers every human being: a friendship in which we both see the face of the Father of Mercies (who calls us out of our prodigality into the full dignity of our humanity) and learn the deep truth about our humanity (that it is in making our lives into a gift for others, as life itself is to each of us, that we come into human fulfillment).

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This conversion of minds and hearts builds a community that is unlike any other: a “communion” of disciples in mission, who understand that faith is increased as it is offered and given away to others.

That communion-community best embodies the truth of the human condition if each individual member of it, and the Church itself, fully embraces the entire symphony of Catholic truth, and in doing so, lives the moral life as a life of growth in beatitude, in compassion for others, and in evangelical charity.

Finally, this communion-community lives “ahead of time,” because it knows, through the Easter faith the Church will celebrate in a few weeks, the truth about how the human adventure will end: God’s purposes in creation and redemption will be vindicated, as history and the cosmos are fulfilled in the New Jerusalem, in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, where death will be no more and every tear will be wiped away (Rev. 21:2–4).

That is the message that Pope Francis will take to the world: Gospel-centered Catholicism, which challenges the post-mod cynics, the metaphysically bored, and the spiritually dry to discover (or rediscover) the tremendous human adventure of living “inside” the Biblical narrative of history. 

A reforming pope. One of the principal dynamics of Conclave 2013 was a settled determination among a clear majority of the cardinal electors to see that the next pontificate addresses, in a root-and-branch way, the incompetence and corruption that has made too much of the Roman Curia an impediment to the New Evangelization, rather than an instrument of it — and in doing so, to empower the good people of the Curia to give the world Church the benefit of their remarkable talents. Pope Francis is not going to have a happy time reading the 300-page report on Vatileaks and related Roman messes that is waiting for him in the papal apartment. But he will read it with a reformer’s eye, with the aid of some very shrewd and reform-minded veterans of the Curia, and with a clear understanding from his own experience (as related to me last May) of what went wrong in the management of the Church’s central administrative machinery under the leadership of Benedict XVI’s cardinal secretary of state, Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B. It may be reasonably expected that real reform, in both curial culture and curial personnel, will follow in due course. The sooner the better, many would say.

A pope in defense of human rights and democracy. Pope Francis has left behind an Argentina in which he was a stern critic of the Cristina Kirchner government’s deepening of that beautiful country’s democracy deficit, and of Madam President’s commitment to a public policy of bread and circuses wedded to legally enforced lifestyle libertinism — what Benedict XVI aptly called the “dictatorship of relativism.” At a moment when the momentum of the democratic project in Latin America is flagging (while new opportunities are opening up in places like post-Chávez Venezuela and the inevitable post-Castro-brothers Cuba), the new pope should be able to rally Catholic forces in defense of religious freedom and other civil liberties in a continent where they are now under assault. And if he can do that at home, he can do it throughout the world.

Pope Francis is also deeply committed to the Church’s service to and empowerment of the poor, as he made unmistakably clear in his ministry in Buenos Aires. But those Gospel-based commitments should not lead anyone to think that he will be Paul Krugman in a white cassock. That seems very unlikely.



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