The new Bishop of Rome


Given his past career, it was said about Ratzinger that – as a Pope – he will be inquisitorial and dogmatic. This was not the case, although his preaching style sometimes put him at disadvantage and his inclination towards theological meditation, even in the most concrete matters, has not always been understood even by all Catholics. As for Bergoglio, looking to his past, one may say: he is Argentinian, Jesuit, austere, loves the poor, opposes the immoral left. How significant will these be for his new role?To understand the Argentine where the new Pope was formed, it is more useful to read not Borges (one of his favourites), but Ernesto Sabato who describes the darkness that engulfed a strongly polarised world, eroded by severe social tensions, but also troubled by contradictory aspirations. There were the years that coincided with the first phase of the activity of Jesuit Bergoglio.

The years full of violence and terror, leftist in the first place, then either in the name of Peron (Sabato gives a memorable description of a night when a church was vandalised, in his On heroes and tombs), or in that of Marxism. The terrorist attacks meant to destabilise the state and open the way to revolution were followed by an even bloodier military regime which specialised in eliminating its young opponents through a special method: the sudden disappearance without a trace. The victims – whose number is estimated in the tens of thousands – were thrown in the ocean from helicopters, and the luckiest were subject to a period of cruel detention, some sort of re-education by terror. Let’s not be naive. If the respective Marxist guerrillas came to power, other victims would have filled the detention camps. Many Catholics, probably enough clerics. This was the ideological warfare to which many Argentineans had to survive. Among them – Jorge Maria Bargoglio, the superior of the country’s Jesuits. This was not just any position. Since the European colonisation, Jesuits always had a special role in this region. And, worth mentioning, they were generally among the most dedicated to progress.

They opposed slavery, they militated for the rights of natives, they maintained strong universities – their speciality – that were hotbeds of political changes, they were involved in the thorniest social issues. But let’s not simplify. Jesuits were not a monochord order, promoting one sole set of values. Those of the times when Bergoglio was in charge, for instance, had a different understanding of caring for the poor. Some wanted revolution, others opposed it. Even though social justice had become a matter of general concern. In 1968, at Rio de Janeiro, the South-American Jesuits took upon them ‘turning the social problems of Latin America into an absolute priority of their apostolic strategy.’ In 1975, the entire Company of Jesus adopted (through Decree 4) such a line of action in favour of the poor, outcasts, emigrants. What followed? On one hand, Jesuits murdered by various regimes, inconvenienced by their solidarity with the poor (and sometimes even with guerrillas), on the other various degrees of collaborationism with repressive dictatorships. The condition of any Catholic was at least uncomfortable. The new Pope would have encountered such uncomfortable situations more than once. With this respect, he seems better placed than his predecessor, from an existential point of view. And he also has another advantage, at the helm of such a large Church, with multiple missions: Bergoglio lived his life among the underprivileged, which certainly imbued him with an efficient pragmatism.

Let’s remember his pastoral, in recent Argentina, about the baptism of children. Many priests were willing to postpone the christening over moral exigency reasons: mothers are single, parents are not married by the Church, the interest for spiritual life is minimal. The poor can be a lesson – before being catechised, they must be fed, sheltered and, above all, encouraged. But this is no easy way for a priest, if he wants to be more than just a social worker, while also not being limited to just spiritual matters. Actually, the big challenge for the Catholic Church (and not only) is to rethink the relations between culture/social/politics and evangelic aspirations. Since it revised its manifest opposition to modernity, the Vatican has been trying possible convergences. Many failed, some lead to dead ends, others do not lack ambiguities. But it cannot backtrack now.The acting Pope certainly did not take such a name purely by chance. Saint Francis of Assisi will be a model for him, although it is hard to predict how a disciple of this saint can lead such a complex, often rigid structure. Even some of his Franciscan followers too easily moved away from the model of the little poor who loves not just people, but also birds, the sun, even sister death. Let’s not be surprised by the appeal to the patron of another order than his own. Ignacio de Loyola equally cared for the hungry, vagabonds, prostitutes. And he was as austere, after conversion, as his predecessor. But Francis remained a brighter character, his (partly unjust) aura of Jesuit master of intrigues making him rather unpleasant to many or, at least, not totally trustworthy. But if the heritage of Francis rather relates to a traditional model of sainthood – divine interventions, gift of thaumaturgy, stigmata – Ignacio is more modern, more preoccupied by matters that are still actual for us: the diversity of cultures, the statute of reason, the context of moral decision, social challenges.

The irresistible simplicity of Francis and the agenda of Ignacio, this is probably the ideal of the new Pope.Monseigneur Bergoglio overtly opposed even the president of Argentina. He thus has the experience of clashes over political issues. With this respect, he is closer to Wojtyla than to Ratzinger, although he lacks the former’s spectacular/media style. Like them, he did not avoid the painful, but salutary attitude of mea culpa, on behalf of a Church that errs, but repents. He did not fear to reopen the so painful chapter of the military dictatorship, with the Catholic clergy’s many acts of complicity, but also of resistance (he is still the target of some accusations himself). And if he opposed homosexual marriages in Argentina, why should he fear doing it in the whole world, with all political implications? John Paul 2nd, too risked his prestige (as anticommunist leader or lucid critic of capitalist injustice) by firmly opposing abortion and birth control. Thus, it is not impossible for political battles in various countries to gain vigour in certain contexts. Although a courageous bishop can afford doing more than the action margin of a Pope, condemned to more diplomacy. Let’s not forget that a simple academic discourse (delivered in Regensburg and by no means uncommon for the millenary Christian culture) made, just few years ago, Catholic victims prey to the Muslim anger.It remains to be seen what attitude he will adopt with regard to the institutional role of his new office. In the theological debates of last century, Jesuits always were among the most open to rethinking the weight of the bishop synodality. Bergoglio’s rival in the precedent conclave, Carlo Maria Martini, a Jesuit himself, clearly spoke in favour of this, in 1999. He pleaded for activating that ‘permanent council of the Church proposed by the Vatican II Council.’

Will Pope Francis make the small step back capable of changing such big matters? Will he prefer, as he made it clear in his first speech (after election), to first be the bishop of Rome?

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