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Editorial: Many firsts for Pope Francis

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who chose the name of Francis is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.  (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who chose the name of Francis is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky) Purchase photo reprints »

The early reaction to Pope Francis by Roman Catholics here and around the world is one of deep appreciation for the humility he displayed in the days after his election. Stories of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s simple life in Argentina, his devotion to the poor, and his remarks and first acts as Pope Francis seem to bear that out.

In his opening appearance before the faithful in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis wore simple white garments, bowed to the people and asked them to pray for him. Many were moved by these seemingly small but significant gestures, perhaps reflecting what they are longing for from church leaders.

The 266th patriarch of the world’s Roman Catholics is making history in many ways. He is the first non-European pope of the modern era, the first from the Jesuit order, the first from Latin America and the first the take the name in honor of Francis of Assisi.

Francis, considered the patron saint of nature and the poor, was a 12th century mystic who gave up worldly possessions to live among and work with the sick and the dispossessed. He was also a reformer who answered what he believed was God’s call to “repair my church in ruins.” It is a powerful legacy, and one that resonates today.

If Cardinal Bergoglio chose the name Francis because he’s intent on reform. He has plenty of issues he can “pick up and run with,” as John Bledsoe, a deacon at St. Patrick’s Church in South Hadley, told the Gazette last week.

Pope Francis has work ahead to repair a church still reeling from the sex abuse scandals and cover-ups involving priests in this country and abroad. The world’s Catholics will be watching to see how he deals with that issue, and with other thorny matters facing the church, including the Vatican’s sometimes contentious relationship with activist nuns and the role of women within the church hierarchy.

He will be challenged to assert the church’s moral authority on matters of human rights, war, the environment and social justice. His willingness to exercise that moral authority during the Argentine government’s “dirty war” decades ago against left-wing reformers has been questioned in the past; his record was vehemently defended by the Vatican when the issue inevitably resurfaced in news accounts last week.

In Rome, the Vatican bureaucracy has been dogged by charges of corruption and infighting. As an outsider, Pope Francis may well be in a good position to bring about changes to the church’s ruling bureaucracy.

His roots in Latin America, home to 480 million Catholics, suggest that the cardinals chose Bergoglio because he comes from a place where Catholicism is strong and growing. Africa and Latin America are two regions where the church is thriving and where the new pope can be expected to build on that strength.

Pope Francis is 76. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, was 78 when he was elected. Last month, at age 85, Benedict surprised the world with his precedent-setting decision to resign, citing his physical limitations and the energy and stamina needed to provide leadership to the church.

While the new pope shares many of his predecessor’s views, his background is very different from that of Benedict, who as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger worked in Rome as the “enforcer” of traditional doctrine for Pope John Paul II. Pope Francis is also a conservative in matters of faith and church teachings, but he is not seen as divisive and doctrinaire.

Time will tell how the theological beliefs of Pope Francis translate into church policy. What we can say today is that the burden of being the successor to St. Peter is great. We wish Pope Francis well as he steps into his new role among world leaders and as pastor to a church with 1.2 billion members.

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