Pope Who? Learning About the Man who is Pope Francis I


When Pope Benedict XVI was elected, it was a delightful and welcome surprise. He was the cardinal that so many Catholics hoped, but dared not believe, would be elected. And because of his profile within the Church, many of us already knew him, had read his work and knew his thought, and had some idea of where his papacy might be focused.

Fast forward to the present. Since the conclave began, I had the sneaking suspicion that whoever was elected would be someone I didn’t expect or would even recognize.

As I watched, the suspense building, and the announcement came…well, I’m not too proud to admit it. I had no idea who Cardinal Bergoglio was. I still have to Google his name as I type this just to make sure I have it right.

Who is Pope Francis I? This is a question I imagine we’ll all be answering over the coming weeks, months, and even years. The various accounts I’ve read since the announcement paints an interesting picture. A Latin American cardinal with a focus on social justice but not liberation theology. A simple man who lives in a modest apartment, cooks his own food, and takes public transit, rather than living in the opulence of a bishop’s mansion. A shepherd who visits the poor and tends to the sick, and who is also outspokenly pro-life, pro-family, and a champion of traditional sexual morality.

He has chosen the name of Francis I. There is no pope of this name in the Church, no example to look to in the past. Already the discussion has broken out among Catholics: is his namesake St. Francis of Assisi, or his fellow Jesuit, St. Francis Xavier? Each patron would have a quite different connotation, and indicate perhaps a different direction for his papacy.

There are some things about him that, for me at least, raise questions. His record seems to indicate a lack of interest in liturgical reform, a hallmark of Benedict’s papacy that was valued by so many, myself included. By some accounts, the implementation of Summorum Pontificum in his diocese is imperceptible, which is not comforting to those of us who are attached to the Extraordinary Form and would like to see its availability increased and supported.

Still, there is much more that most of us don’t know than that we know. Of all the accounts I’ve read, the most thorough has been that of John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter. Allen writes:

After the dust settled from the election of Benedict XVI, various reports identified the Argentine Jesuit as the main challenger to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. One cardinal later said the conclave had been “something of a horse race” between Ratzinger and Bergoglio, and an anonymous conclave diary splashed across the Italian media in September 2005 claimed that Bergoglio received 40 votes on the third ballot, just before Ratzinger crossed the two-thirds threshold and became pope.

Though it’s hard to say how seriously one should take the specifics, the general consensus is that Bergoglio was indeed the “runner-up” last time around. He appealed to conservatives in the College of Cardinals as a man who had held the line against liberalizing currents among the Jesuits, and to moderates as a symbol of the church’s commitment to the developing world.


The case for Bergoglio in 2013 rests on four points.

First and most basically, he had strong support last time around, and some cardinals may think that they’re getting another bite at the apple now.

Second, Bergoglio is a candidates who brings together the first world and the developing world in his own person. He’s a Latin American with Italian roots, who studied in Germany. As a Jesuit he’s a member of a truly international religious community, and his ties to Comunione e Liberazionemake him part of another global network.

Third, Bergoglio still has appeal across the usual divides in the church, drawing respect from both conservatives and moderates for his keen pastoral sense, his intelligence, and his personal modesty. He’s also seen as a genuinely spiritual soul, and a man of deep prayer.

“Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord,” Bergoglio said in 2001. “I beg the theologians who are present not to turn me in to the Sant’Uffizio or the Inquisition; however, forcing things a bit, I dare to say that the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.”

Fourth, he’s also seen as a successful evangelist.

“We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church,” Bergoglio said recently. “It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that’s sick because it’s self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former.”

There’s much more in Allen’s profile, and I suggest to all of you who, like me, are wondering about our new Holy Father, that it’s worth reading.

For the first time in over three decades, we have a pope whom we do not know. I suspect that he will surprise us, and his will be a very different papacy in many respects than the last two that came before him, but also familiar.

I sincerely hope that he continues the reform of the post-Vatican II Church that Pope Emeritus Benedict so lovingly began, through actions like the liberation of the traditional Mass and the improved translation of the Roman Missal. I hope, too, that he brings his sense of personal simplicity and charity to a Church that is still wounded from abuse scandals and filled with disillusioned and confused faithful. I look forward to his ability to energize Catholics in the Spanish-speaking world, who have become such an important component of the Universal Church. I am thrilled that he will continue to defend the traditional family and the sanctity of life in a world that seems so aggressively in pursuit of the destruction of both.

History shows us that the man who is elected pope is often very different than the pope who reigns. I have little doubt that this papacy will bring surprises. I look forward to getting to know our new Holy Father.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


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