On March 19, 2013 Jorge Mario Bergoglio was inaugurated as Pope Francis I. Along with thousands of Argentineans, I stood in the Plaza de Mayo as the sun rose and the new pope, broadcasted from miles away, made his way up the Vatican steps.
I first learnt about Pope Benedict XVI's resignation in India. Coming to Argentina I had no idea who the next Pope would be, until one night with the clanging of the dinner-bell came the announcement that the new Pope was not only from Latin America, but the ArchBishop of Buenos Aires. Its difficult to describe the elation that we felt that night. Our host-parents, both devout Catholics, were overjoyed. Growing up a Roman Catholic, I also felt a deep sense of pride. After centuries, the Catholic Church was recognizing the extent of its congregation - its diminishing flock in Europe and its growing masses in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
While we were in Argentina, there was a lot of talk about his involvement in Argentine history and politics. We too took part in that dialogue with our host parents, newspapers, and the world around us. It was a interesting to see how history influences so much of current events as they are unfolding in real time. So many of my impressions of this new Pope were developed in those first moments - now that I'm back in the U.S.
As a religious figure in Latin America during the 1970s Pope Francis became involved in the discussion of Christian Humanism as espoused by Jesuit Liberation Theology. 'Liberation Theology' is a movement that interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ as liberation from unjust economic, social, and political conditions. While it has been depicted as 'Christianity through the eyes of the poor' many have accused the movement of being 'Marxist Christianity' because of it call for redistribution of wealth and equality.
For a pope who frequently preached in the slums, who washed the feet of the poor, took the name of 'Francis', and is now being called a Pope of the Poor the line is not clearly drawn. Writer Matthew Fox claims that during the 1970s Pope Francis "fought liberation theology tooth and nail as head of the bishops' conference and he was an effective instigator of papal attitudes in this regard." Others like Leonardo Boff argue that, "though he is averse to liberation theology, which he views as hopelessly tainted with Marxist ideology, Cardinal Bergoglio has emphasized outreach to the impoverished, and as cardinal of Buenos Aires he has overseen increased social services and evangelization in the slums." He continues "I am encouraged by this choice, viewing it as a pledge for a church of simplicity and of ecological ideals." Pope Francis has spoken out both against left-wing Marxism and right-wing Economic Neoliberalism. Instead he has chosen a middle path. Without calling for redistribution of wealth or a strong social movement, Pope Francis has advocated for the poor and upheld charity as the foundation to Christianity.
During the 1970s, participating in the Liberation Theology movement was politically dangerous given how the Cold War violently played out in Latin America. In May of 1976 two Jesuit Priests were captured and tortured by the Argentinean Navy. While there were accusations that Bergoglio threw them out of the Jesuit order and was involved in their kidnapping, such allegations proved false. In the then Cardinal Bergoglio's Biography, Sergio Rubin writes that the man assisted in sheltering dissidents on church property and getting them out of the country. As Adolfo Pérez (Nobel Peace Prize Winner of 1980) points out: "Perhaps he didn't have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship ... Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship." Once again Pope Francis took the middle path and remained apolitical.
On Social Issues Pope Francis has been more vocal. In Argentina, every effort made to pass gay marriage or abortion has been opposed by the then Cardinal Bergoglio. During the gay marriage vote in Argentina, Pope Francis was quoted as saying: "At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God's law engraved in our hearts." When President Kirchner attempted to pass laws to give women the choice to abortion the Pope Francis spoke out saying: "Abortion is killing someone that cannot defend himself." Recently Pope Francis has encouraged bishops to deny communion to pro-abortion politicians. On issues of celibacy and allowing females into priesthood, Pope Francis has been more open, but will refer to the council of cardinals he has set up to advise him on these issues.
In many ways I'm glad that Pope Francis was inaugurated as Pope. Even if we disagree on certain social issues, I recognize his upbringing in the Catholic Church and how difficult it may be to change a fundamentally socially conservative institution. I think the way he is living modestly and the way he is portraying the Catholic Church as servants to the poor is refreshing. He is remaining apolitical, he is taking the middle path, and many love him for it. Yet, part of me also thinks that if the turbulence during Pope Benedict XVI's papacy had continued, the Church would have had to convene a Third Vatican Council and respond to the changes that have been occurring around the world. Thanks to the Second Vatican Council (in 1960) the Mass (and all the sacraments) are now spoken and celebrated in the language of the country instead of Latin, priests now stands facing the people, the Mass and the other sacraments have been simplified for easier understanding, the lay people now have a greater role in the celebration of the sacraments, the rules and regulations of Religious Life and Priesthood have been up-dated, and the Catholic laity is encourage to read and study the bible. Who knows what a Third Vatican Council could have changed - perhaps they would have allowed an end to the celibacy of priests, the ordination of women, and a loosening of social issues. But this is all speculation. Overall, I am happy with Pope Francisco I. Even if his middle path does not radically change some of the fundamental positions of the Catholic Church, I see a man who is committed to helping the poor and the destitute, the forgotten and the marginalized. And for that I am truly thankful.
An Excerpt from my Journal
We woke up at 4am. It was still dark. A few of our roommates hopped on the bus - it was packed with sleepy passengers rubbing their eyes and a few nuns herding catholic school girls in high-socks. They glared at us as more and more passengers boarded the bus and us guys were forced onto their wards. We were headed to the Plaza de Mayo jostling with every bump in the road. A block away the bus doors opened and people rushed out onto the street and headed towards the square. Plaza de Mayo was already packed with students from the University who were holding a midnight vigil for Pope Francis I. There were thousands already gathered in the square, but somehow we managed to squeeze in right in front of the giant projection screen near La Casa Rosada. As the Vatican doors opened we witnessed the thousands of curia gathered in its marbled hallways. The traditions of the Vatican seemed strange, almost occult with the way the thousands of curia walked down the marbled hallways lit with thousands of candles. There were representatives from all over the world - political leaders and religious leaders from all walks of life. And all this, for an aging latino man who made his way up the carpeted steps. I was struck by the different languages that rose from that podium. Prayers in latin, prayers in slavic, prayers in spanish, and prayers in Italian. At one point one of our friends turned to me and whispered, "I can't understand his Spanish, he has such a strange accent." We laughed - the Pope was clearly speaking Italian. As the inauguration continued we shuffled positions on the floor, a few of us began to fall asleep on the bricks of the plaza. The Pontificate was handed a staff and inaugurated as the new Pope as the sun finally broke. It lasted only two hours, but in that moment I felt awash with hope. To share that moment with thousands of Argentineans at the Plaza de Mayo was truly special. And even as the Plaza emptied - as people shuffled off to work and got on the subway - that feeling of elation hung in the air.