As luck would have it, I happened to be in the studio with Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday when the news broke of Cardinal Bergoglio’s surprise elevation to the papacy, and Hugh was kind enough to put me first up on his show that day as we discussed our initial reactions. With another day to think about it, I wrote my New York Post column today about the new pope. Short version: Francis could be a game-changer:
By the first act of his papacy, Pope Francis sent a message, urbi et orbi (to the city and the world) about just what kind of pope he’s going to be.
Appearing before cheering throngs packed into St. Peter’s Square, he spurned the red papal cape and ornate pectoral cross in favor of plain white vestments and a simple crucifix, and asked the people to pray for him before he blessed them.
Rather than riding back to his temporary quarters in the Vatican in the papal limousine, he took the bus with the other cardinals who had just elected him.
Most significantly, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, the Jesuit bishop of Buenos Aires, chose the name “Francis,” in a deliberate echo of the church’s most popular saint, Francis of Assisi, a rich young man who forsook his fortune to become an itinerant preacher and founder of the Franciscan order.
Which means that the first pope from the American hemisphere is about to delight and infuriate in equal measure both Catholics and non-Catholics — just about anybody who views the papacy as a political office, rather than a religious one.
I don’t think the Church could ask for better news. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI could never really get their heads around the extent of the moral rot and spiritual crisis in the Church that Vatican II opened up, nor did they see the inherent contradiction (which non-Catholics point out all the time) between its humble origins and its current, Borgian, opulent skulduggery. With his choice of a name, Francis clearly does. And more:
In central and South America, Francis’s task will be to stop the slide away from traditional Catholicism to evangelical Protestantism, and to advocate for the poor while rejecting both the quasi-Marxist heresy of “liberation theology” (something, alas, much advocated in the past by Bergoglio’s fellow Jesuits) and the Peron-like fascism of Argentina’s kleptocratic Kirschner ruling family (with whom he’s repeatedly clashed).
Internationally, Francis must confront the murderous persecution of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Middle East — where radical, intolerant Islam is waging jihad against ancient Christian communities in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.
In this, he’ll likely recall his namesake as well: Francis of Assisi once tried, unsuccessfully, to halt the bloodshed of the Fifth Crusade in the early 13th century by traveling to Egypt and trying to convert the sultan Malik al-Kamil to Christianity.
What Francis grasps is that the path to moral authority lies not in bookish scholasticism but in leadership by example. He won’t be practicing just what he preaches, but what Jesus, Peter and St. Francis actually did: Change the world by deeds, not words.