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Expert Comment: Habemus Papam Franciscum

Image: St Peter's. Copyright Graeme Churchyard (2006) Licensed under CC BY-ND. Thursday 14 March 2013

‘They’ve chosen! They’ve chosen!’, a woman excitedly told her daughter, ignoring the rain, but certainly not the white smoke as it rose from the chimney of the Sistine chapel on Wednesday 13th March 2013. at 18.06 GMT. But they didn’t know until a little later whom they had chosen. Now, along with the entire world, they do know : it is Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Argentine, the first Jesuit and the first to take the papal name Francis, who is to become the 266th pope when he is formally inaugurated during an open-air mass in Rome on 19th March. Most of the world is very excited and, I think, somewhat relieved.

His choice of the name Francis is highly symbolic. It calls to mind the 12th century St. Francis of Assisi, the humble man of God who knew what prison was like, who loved the poor and who worked in a leper colony; who renounced a lavish lifestyle for one of simplicity and humility and who loved the created order. Cardinal Bergoglio is already known for such traits. After becoming Archbishop, he shunned his limousine and caught the bus and underground around Buenos Aires, he lived in a modest flat, never a large Archbishop’s house, he cooked his own meals and on becoming a Cardinal, he told his friends not to fly to Rome, but to give the money instead to the poor who needed it.

A year after being named Archbishop, he washed the feet of twelve Aids sufferers, the following year he washed the feet of twelve prison inmates; each year he bathes the feet of twelve others from socially ostracised groups. When not championing the causes of social justice, he spends time in solitude and reflection, for he is a contemplative man at heart, like his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Although he has a fine doctorate from Germany, he rarely mentions it. His father was a railway worker and Italian immigrant to Argentina. He has been a teacher of psychology and literature in a high school. Liverpool Hope has much to learn from him.

Like St. Francis, he can get angry about hypocrisy. He proclaimed to his priests, ‘In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptise the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage. These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalise the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation’. He also believes passionately that politics is ‘a noble activity. We should revalue it, practise it with vocation and a dedication that requires testimony, that is to die for the common good’.

Like St. Francis, who bore the stigmata - the five wounds of Christ - he realizes that he, too, will now have to bear those wounds, as he leads the Catholic Church at this important time in its history.

His first words to his flock on Wednesday were to ask for a favour: ‘First I want to ask you a favour. Before the bishop blesses the people I ask that you pray to the Lord to bless me’. Many, I think, will grant him this humble wish.

Image: St Peter's. Copyright Graeme Churchyard (2006) Licensed under CC BY-ND.

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