Analysis: What can we expect from Pope Francis I?

By Simon Barrow
March 13, 2013

The election of Argentinian Cardinal-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, to be Pope Francis I is historic in four senses. The new pontiff is the first non-European to be Bishop of Rome for a millennium, the first Jesuit, the first from Latin America, and the first with deep origins in the industrial working class.

His elevation sends out a number of signals. The new pope is regarded as a humble and pastoral man. He has chosen not to live in a palace and to use public transport (though both of those things will change now that he is at the Vatican). He does not 'stand on ceremony', as his modest appearance on the balcony of the Basilica at St Peter's illustrated.

While not an 'insider', Bergoglio is an astute man. He is willing to take advice, and with good communications and diplomatic skills he knows something of how the Vatican works and why the Roman Curia, its administrative hub, is in need of substantial reform. Robert Micken, correspondent of The Tablet, presently in Rome, said this evening that we might expect not just a challenge to the ruling bureaucracy, but "a reform to simplicity."

At the age of 76 Francis I is unlikely to have a long tenure, but this does not mean he cannot bring change. Among 'transitional papacies' has been that of Pope John XXIII, who launched Vatican II. No-one is predicting another major Council in the coming years, but a quiet incumbent who is more in touch with the grassroots and the global church may be able to bring an unexpected level of change in certain areas.

It would be mistaken simply to focus on Pope Francis' strongly conservative views on bioethical issues and on same-sex marriage. That is to be expected. None of the other cardinals would have represented a substantial shift in those areas. But those involved in development and work alongside the poor hope that Francis can apply his pastoral instincts anew in looking at the AIDS-HIV crisis, for example.

Equally, the new pope will be regarded as progressive on a range of other social questions, even if he has kept his distance from the more radical exponents of liberation theology. While he has emphasised spirituality as the core of his ministry, the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics has voiced clear support for the poor and has publicly challenged neoliberal free-market policies and the 2002 austerity drive in Argentina.

He was not sympathetic to the previous Argentinian military junta, but nor did he support the radical 'base communities'. He was accused of not being vocal enough in his advocacy of human rights by many of those struggling to overthrow the generals, as well as "conniving" with the Navy (Hugh O'Shaughnessy) in cases involving two dissident Jesuit priests. He strongly denies these charges, but still faces a number of serious questions. The Catholic Church in Argentina apologized officially in 2000 for complicity with the dictatorship.

There are a variety of other signals in the new pope's immediate response to his elevation. First, the name he has chosen resonates not just with the with missionary priest Francis Xavier, a fellow Jesuit, but also with St Francis of Assisi. This is the first pontiff specifically to identify with the man who is regarded as "the saint of the poor", of humanity, of the natural world, of prayer and of peacemaking.

Moreover, one of St Francis' visions of God had Christ saying to him: "Francis, go repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin," as Mark Chater, director of Culham St Gabriel's Trust in Oxford, pointed out to me this evening.

Second, the way he handled his first blessing from St Peter's was interesting. He looked contemplative rather than swayed by emotion as the crowds cheered and chanted. His initial greeting, in Italian rather than Latin, was a simple, "Good evening" followed by a joking remark about how his fellow cardinals had looked to "the ends of the earth" to find their Bishop. He spoke, in the first instance, not of his role as global leader, but as becoming bishop in Rome and of his desire to greet the people of Rome. After praying for his predecessor, he then asked the people to pray for him, in silence, before he offered a reciprocal Lord's Prayer, Ave Maria and 'Glory Be' Blessing.

All this, combined with the fact that his roots are in the religious and episcopal life, rather than as a university professor (though he is academically trained in theology and chemistry, and has also taught philosophy and psychology), suggests a significantly different style to Pope Benedict XVI - even if, theologically and ecclesiologically, they are probably not hugely different.

Pope Francis I comes across as an intelligent man who values simplicity and good relations, and those who know him say that he will want to see a culture change within the Vatican - which is known to be remote, full of infighting, and resistant to change.

Much of what can initially be said of this man may be summed up in the style of the Society of Jesus, which formed the new pope. At the centre of Jesuit life is a combination of the 'Spiritual Exercises' set in motion by its founder, Ignatius of Loyola, and a concern to engage the world through learning, culture, social justice, human service and ecumenical dialogue.

Jesuits do not have an official habit, but in the Constitutions of the Society, declare: "The clothing too should have three characteristics: first, it should be proper; second, conformed to the usage of the country of residence; and third, not contradictory to the poverty we profess...".

Those characteristics - propriety, rootedness and humility (as well as the loyalty stressed in the Jesuit vow) are what many hope they will find in Francis I.

It will certainly be interesting to see how this unexpected papacy proceeds, and how those with current power in the Catholic Church respond to it.

* More on Pope Francis from Ekklesia:

* A new pope. Headlines are simple; the truth is complex:

* Papal #conclave: news, comment, background and analysis from Ekklesia:

* "Francis, go repair my house": papal advice from a saint?:

* A 'religious pope': what difference it could make for the Catholic Church, Simon Barrow:


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A member of the Scottish Episcopal Church with strong Anabaptist/Mennonite leanings, he has worked at a Catholic university college in the past, as well as within the ecumenical movement. He has a long-standing interest in, and appreciation for, Catholic spirituality and liturgy, alongside the peace and justice traditions of the Catholic Church.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.