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Papa Francesco: A New Era?

Pope Francis in Brazil on March 20. Credit: Wiki Commons.

With their unending infatuation with the exotica of ritual and royalty, all of the networks provided extensive coverage of the papal resignation and election.

Expect the same when Queen Elizabeth II either dies or abdicates.

The appearance of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires on the loggia of St. Peter’s was greeted by a brief moment of surprise (conclave coverage suggested we would be seeing Pope Angelo Scola or Odilo Scherer -- the Italian Episcopal Conference even e-mailed an erroneous congratulations to Scola -- the papal version of “Dewey Defeats Truman.”) Then crowd went wild as the huge bell on St. Peter’s pealed out the glad tidings.

Pope Francis is widely touted as a pope of “firsts,” which is true, but with qualifications. He is the first non-European in many centuries (although his family history suggests a more “transnational” identity). He is the first Latin American (true enough, but this geographical short-hand obscures the distinctiveness of Argentine culture and Catholicism.)  Perhaps most surprisingly, he is the first Jesuit elected to the See of Rome (truly remarkable since the Jesuit “brand” was pretty much damaged by Pope John Paul II’s punitive “take-over” of the order in the 1980s.)

On that rainy Roman night, Pope Francis seemed serene and in command of himself. No celebratory gestures or even a wide smile, just a thoughtful gaze at the assembled thousands. He wished them well ... referred quickly to the election (“here I am”). But before giving the papal blessing, he humbly bowed to ask those present to pray for and bless him.


Any priest worth his salt recognized the power and sincerity of this gesture. In the assembled people of God are saints and struggling sinners whose goodness, integrity and heroism often far exceeds that of those given the “dignity” of the clerical state or even the papacy.  Francis appears to “get it.”

The new pope’s actions and words daily underscore his warmth and his affection for the poor. His desire to sweep away the trappings of deference and pomp that have accumulated to his office like so many barnacles is winning him acclaim. No red shoes, ermine-trimmed mantles or gaudy pectoral crosses. No limousines to travel a few feet, no fluttering monsignori acting like footmen in the court of Louis XIV.  He may not even live in the oddly named “Apostolic Palace” but in smaller, less pretentious quarters.

It is all so refreshing.

He has made mercy and simplicity the benchmarks of his approach to the Petrine office. One hears in his words and sees in his gestures the echoes of the last pope who spoke about it as though it mattered: John XXIII. He insisted when he began Vatican II in October 1962, that the church embrace “the medicine of mercy” as they re-engaged the modern world. Could Francis re-awaken the spirit of aggiornamento that the past two pontificates and the Roman curia have spent the past thirty years calling into question?

Inevitably, there will be more questions -- issues that journalists, historians, theologians and others will tackle and hopefully produce credible responses:

The issue of Bergoglio’s action or inaction in the Argentine “Dirty War”.

Conflicting reports have emerged about this suggesting that what he did or did not do is still a contested issue with some. For historians the issue also offers the opportunity to explore this affair in all its complexity -- including the support of the United States government for this abusive dictatorship. Let the historical chips fall where they may.

The harsh and even vituperative rhetoric Bergoglio used in opposing same-sex marriage and gay adoption.

Even though Bergoglio favored civil unions (but was voted down by the other Argentine bishops), by the standard of mercy and kindness he projects now, these comments are totally unacceptable and pastorally counter-productive.

It is not wise to expect miraculous transformations in huge operations like the Catholic Church (ask Barack Obama about raising hopes too high). But perhaps we are at a historical moment when some areas of church life can be reformed. Strong willed popes can get their way -- John Paul II showed us how it was done.

So if Papa Francesco is up to the task, here are some things to watch for:

Will he continue his preference for simplicity?

The atmospherics of Francis’s installation and his appearances suggest that he will. Will this continue or will he slip back in to the old deferential court etiquette? What kind of a standard will he set for cardinals and other prelates who have re-assumed the trappings of pomp and power, e.g. elaborate vesture, long trains of watered silk, etc.

Can he “reform” of the Roman curia?

These entrenched and often sclerotic bureaucrats have made fools of themselves in the past few years. But this problem is long-standing. In the 1950s, curial cardinals condemned a number of promising theologians (including American Jesuit John Courtney Murray); they dragged their feet in implementing Pope John’s call for a council and when they couldn’t stop it, tried to short-circuit the entire endeavor with a “pre-packaged” conciliar agenda. Some did everything they could to undermine the implementation of the council. One hopes Pope Francis can grab this bureaucracy by its collective throat and help them to realize they alone are not the church.

What kind of bishops will he appoint?

The last two pontiffs appointed only men who swore allegiance to Vatican lines on contraception, homosexuality and women’s ordination. What kind of bishops will Francis appoint? Will they reflect his love for the poor and his insistence on simplifying the lifestyle of the clergy?

Might Francis tackle the discipline of mandatory celibacy for diocesan clergy?

He comes from a region of the world where the clergy shortage is acute. Pope Benedict XVI relativized the insistence on celibacy by admitting married Anglicans to the priesthood -- wives, children and all -- could the new pope not take the next logical step and invite back all ordained Roman priests who left only to be married?

How aggressively and openly will he tackle the now international scandal of the sexual abuse of children? Will he remove those who covered up these crimes?

 How will he respond to the strong push-back from the right wing of the Catholic Church, especially if he presses too hard on social justice issues?

Conservative Catholics in the U.S. have been pretty restrained in their embrace of the new Holy Father and over the years have built their own formidable “noise machine” of websites, radio and television stations, public intellectuals, supportive clerics and bishops. For this group there is a “hierarchy of truths” in dealing with human life issues and the chief non-negotiable is opposition to abortion. Catholic teaching on matters of economic justice, on the other hand, are open to “prudential judgment”, i.e. they can be discussed, debated and dissented from even if they emanate from the pope.

How will he treat Roman Catholic sisters in the U.S. who are now the subject of investigation for, among other things, their stands on social issues?

Historians look for the long view and what this all means will be written long after we are dust. Perhaps now, the only thing we can do besides observe, it provide context and perspective to what is about to unfold.'

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