Almost everybody was surprised today by the selection of Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as pope. It was surprising in the sense that he was not prominent on the lists of papabile for this conclave. Surprising, too, in that he presents two “firsts”: The first South American pope, and the first Jesuit pope. He added a third “first” by taking the unprecedented papal name of Francis. I don’t think we know yet which of the great Francises in the history of the Church he has in mind. But if he means Francis of Assissi, it suggests this idea: That Francis began his ministry when Jesus said to him: “Francis, rebuild my Church.”
That observation is admittedly speculative, and speculation will become less necessary–or, since it really is not necessary, will become less a temptation–as the days pass and we learn more about him. For the moment, we can learn something from the veteran Vatican watchers available to us. One of these, perhaps the most prominent of these, is Sandro Magister. He characterizes the selection of Bergoglio not only as “surprising” but also as “brilliant.”
Like many commentators, Magister has noted Francis’s reputation for personal humility. He also notes another important quality: administrative ability. Choosing the name of Francis
reflects his humble life. Having become archbishop of Buenos Aires 1998, he left empty the sumptuous episcopal residence next to the cathedral. He went to live in an apartment a short distance away, together with another elderly bishop. In the evening he was the one who saw to the cooking. He rarely rode in cars, getting around by bus in the cassock of an ordinary priest.
But he is also a man who knows how to govern. With firmness and against the tide. He is a Jesuit – the first to have become pope – and during the terrible 1970’s, when the dictatorship was raging and some of his confrères were ready to embrace the rifle and apply the lessons of Marx, he energetically opposed the tendency as provincial of the Society of Jesus in Argentina.
He has always carefully kept his distance from the Roman curia. It is certain that he will want it to be lean, clean, and loyal.
He is a pastor of sound doctrine and of concrete realism. To the Argentines reduced to hunger he has given much more than bread. He has urged them to pick the catechism back up again. That of the ten commandments and of the beatitudes. “This is the way of Jesus,” he would say. And one who follows Jesus understands that “trampling the dignity of a woman, of a man, of a child, of an elderly person is a grave sin that cries out to heaven,” and therefore decides to do it no more.