The Pope of Mercy

by Michael Potemra


Ignatius Press has just released an insta-book that is an impressive account of the recent papal transition. (The Kindle version is available now; the hardcover will be available on April 10.) The author, prominent Italian Vaticanista Andrea Tornielli, provides the key details of the resignation of Benedict XVI and the subsequent papal election and inauguration, as well as a biography and character study of the new pope.


Tornielli does a good job of assembling the existing Spanish-language and other sources into a coherent portrait of a humble but strong pastor: “someone who came to serve and not to lord it over [people,] a man . . . who came to facilitate their encounter with Jesus. Nearness, mercy, gentleness, patience: These are the words of Father Bergoglio.”


Of these words, mercy — which appears in the motto on the new pope’s coat of arms — is the central one:

[In his first Angelus message, on March 17,] the Pope commented on the Sunday Gospel: the story of the adulterous woman whom Jesus saves from a death sentence. “Jesus’ attitude is striking: . . . We do not hear words of condemnation, but only words of love.” It is so easy for us to become indignant over the sins of others, to ask for condemnation without making an examination of conscience. “God’s face is the face of a merciful father who is always patient,” Francis said. “He does not tire of forgiving us if we are able to return to him with a contrite heart,” he added. It is a matter of acknowledging that we are in need of forgiveness and realizing that there are no sinless people. . . .


“Mercy . . . changes the world, . . . makes [it] less cold and more just.” He cited the Prophet Isaiah: “Even if our sins were scarlet, God’s love would make them white as snow.” To a world that finds it so difficult to believe, the new pope wanted to shout the same proclamation as two thousand years ago, that this mercy is not a sentiment but a person. His very striking way of recalling the Incarnation — the Angelus actually commemorates the Incarnation — was a maternal gesture: He held his arms in front of him and moved them as though rocking a baby and said, “Our Lady . . . held in her arms the Mercy of God made man.”

The pope’s personal warmth also comes through in anecdotes of his affection for a boss he once had when he was still working as a chemist: a Paraguayan woman named Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, a Communist sympathizer who would be assassinated under the Argentine dictatorship. And prominent Argentine-born Evangelical minister Luis Palau is quoted on how the important the pope’s personalist focus is:


“The largest number of Catholics live in Latin America,” Pastor Palau [said] in an interview with Christianity Today, reprinted by the website Vatican Insider. “Even though millions of Christians have turned to Jesus Christ in an evangelically Christian way, no less than 70 percent of Latin America still would profess that they are Roman Catholics. Not many decades ago, there was a confrontational attitude, and it was not pleasant. [But now it is] nothing like it was fifty years ago.”

. . .

Palau thinks that with Pope Francis there will be no conflict: “He has proved it over and over in his term as a cardinal in Argentina. There was more building bridges and showing respect, knowing the differences, but focusing on what we can agree on: on the divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, his Resurrection, the second coming.” . . . Palau recalls a meeting in which Bergoglio told him that on the staff of the archbishop’s chancery he had an Evangelical Christian accountant: “I can trust him,” he explained, because “we spend hours [together] reading the Bible and praying and drinking maté [an Argentine green tea].”


There is also a hint that the new pope is less interested in church controversies about such matters as liturgical rubrics and canon law than in more basic issues of the church’s presence in the external world. Talking to a young priest who wanted to know whether he should wear a cassock, he said: “The problem is not whether or not you put it on but whether you roll up the sleeves to work for others.”


There has been much crowing during the past three weeks, often by church liberals who never much liked Ratzinger, over the new directions being taken by Bergoglio. It’s probably unavoidable that many people will personalize church issues in this way; I remember the very similar gloating of church conservatives, back when Ratzinger was elected, that at long last the liberals would get their comeuppance. I have, to be sure, my own opinions and biases on various issues within Christianity, including on some of the differences between Ratzinger and Bergoglio; but I think one can recognize the strengths of the new pope without implying a wide-ranging disapproval of his predecessor. Ratzinger tried one approach, and had a few hits and a few misses; Bergoglio has another style, and will have his own hits and misses. But for now, he has captured the world’s attention in a way no religious leader has since the shocking election of a Polish pope 35 years ago, and that gives him a great opportunity; and he seems, on the basis of his first three weeks in office, to be ready for it.


Everyone who wishes the cause of religion well — who wants to kindle in mankind a sense of its origins, meaning, and destiny, and the existence of a transcendent Truth — should be rooting for him.

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