Of white smoke & black popes

While I whisper Viva, il papa! I’m content that the Church, too, is black-and-white — called to be holy and selfless; sinful, yet striving to be better

Habemus papam: Franciscum.” These early-morning words on Thursday hit me like a torpedo. It took me time to realise that the new Pope — Jorge Mario Bergoglio — was assuming an unused papal name, Francis, mine!

More shocking were realisations that this man in white was Argentinean, and, yes, a Jesuit, like me!
The Superior Generals who head the Jesuits are traditionally and teasingly nicknamed “black popes” because of their black cassocks and their unswerving loyalty to Popes. First non-European Pope in 1,300 years, first Argentinean Pope in a 2,000-year Christian history, first Jesuit Pope in a history of over 450 years, and first Pope Francis ever. These firsts promise newness and change — even if Francis, aged 76, seems a tad too old to bring newness and broker change. But he is steady and steely, too.
What’s in a name? A lot in this one. With Italian roots, Jesuit training and Argentinean experiences, Francis will inevitably be invigorated by two saints with that name: “Francesco” of Assisi (1182-1226), universally loved and fondly called Il Santo in Italy; and, Spaniard “Francisco” Xavier (1506-1552), revered as the “apostle of the Indies”, whose body is enshrined at Bom Jesus Basilica, Goa, and Goans zealously claim as “Goycho patron, Goycho saib” (Patron of Goa).
Wealthy Francesco of Assisi left his family and fortune to follow Christ. He heard the voice of Christ from a cross: “Francis, repair my Church, which is falling down!”
Pope Francis will have to initiate 21st century Church repairs, if not reforms, in three realms: (a) the Vatican Curia; (b) among priests guilty of sexual misconduct; and (c) in the Church’s relation with atheists and society at large.
On being elected Pope before thousands present at Piazza San Pietro and viewed by millions on TV, Bergoglio said nothing spectacular but did something symbolically significant. He bowed. Head lowered with simplicity and sincerity, he said: “Before I bless you, my people, you please pray for me.” The pin-drop silence that ensued was a tangible testimony that this Pope is different. He politely refused to occupy a papal cathedra (chair) and boarded the bus with fellow-cardinals instead of the papal cab. Later, when toasted by fellow cardinals, he wryly said: “May God forgive you for what you’ve done!”
In the 2005 papal conclave, Bergoglio was reportedly the “runner-up” to Benedict XVI. There was then another papabile (probable papal candidate), Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini — also a Jesuit — who, in an interview, said: “The Church bureaucracy rises up, our religious rites and the vestments we wear are pompous… We require radical transformation, beginning with the Pope and his bishops.” Francis, I think, will be that Pope in the mould of Francesco to build up the Church by thinning the bulky bureaucracy, downsizing institutions, and divesting himself and Christ’s disciples of the trappings of power.
Paedophilia and sexual misconduct of priests is often seen as the Achilles’ heel of the Catholic Church. Here, Bergoglio’s no-nonsense stance in moral matters will help repair the damage. There is no ecclesial law above the laws of the state. The guilty must be punished.
Bergoglio has not minced words to condemn same-sex marriages and abortion. In 2010, he asserted that gay adoption is a form of discrimination against children, earning public rebuke from Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Bergoglio is not likely to radically alter his views on moral matters; indeed, he must continue to base his judgements on sound moral principles. Individual freedom, yes, but balanced with duties; and rights wedded to responsibilities. Ethical issues are never black “or” white — they are grey areas of life that demand discernment, enlightened debate and concerted commitment towards the welfare of all living creatures — the unborn, included.
Atheism and crass consumerism challenge religionists today. Trained in philosophy, theology and psychology, Pope Francis seemingly has the ability to dialogue with atheists and agnostics, to straddle widely differing viewpoints of liberals, moderates and conservatives so as to catalyse global “haves” to work for the welfare of the “have nots”. He has often criticised a globalisation that “creates a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers and sisters.”
Said Pope Francis on Thursday: “It’s the duty of a conclave to give a bishop to Rome, but my brother-cardinals went to the end of the world to find one!”
In the 16th century, Jesuit Francis Xavier sailed to the other end of the world, India! Today, Buenos Aires and Mumbai are as much “centers” as are New York and Rome. Delightful Indian diversity was seen in our five Indian cardinals at the conclave who dress differently, wear different headgear, speak myriad languages and head three distinct Catholic rites. They probably cast their vote for the one who listens and learns, discerns and dialogues, and has the ability to take tough decisions.
Thursday night, I dream of black-and-white smoke and black-and-white popes. While I whisper “Viva, il papa!” I’m content that the Church, too, is black-and-white — called to be holy and selfless; sinful, yet striving to be better. Henceforth, 1.2 billion believers will pray for an Argentinean Jesuit, Fr Jorge — as he liked to be called — now Pope Francis. And I will, hopefully, have one more namesake to look up to and emulate.

The writer is the principal of the Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi.

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