Jorge Bergoglio, the son of Italian immigrants born in Buenos Aires, doesn’t fit the image of a high and mighty churchman in charge of an empire of more than 1 billion people.
He’s a humble man and, at 76, not young. Until quite recently, he rode the bus to work and lived in a small apartment. He cooked his own meals.
After the white smoke poured from the Vatican on Wednesday, and Cardinal Bergoglio took the name Pope Francis, he asked the people to pray for him.
By taking the name Francis – one of Roman Catholicism’s most humble and beloved saints – the new pope announced changes coming to Western Christianity’s largest church, a church in crisis.
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The cardinals, in putting their trust in Francis, were directly responding to the challenge laid out by former Pope Benedict XVI.
Before he stepped down, Benedict repeatedly warned that the church was in crisis, among the hierarchs and the laity. The example on most people’s minds, regardless of their faith, is the hypocrisy among the church leaders who moved sexually abusive priests from parish to parish to cover up their crimes and allow them to continue ruining the lives of children.
Benedict also warned that such hypocrisy had accelerated a drifting faith among the people (and this applies to all Christians), where some attend services and see not a holy miracle but a pageant.
Shortly after Francis was chosen, I phoned two experts to explore Benedict’s warning in the context of the church’s new leadership.
The first was Larry Chapp, professor of theology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.
“Benedict made it very, very clear,” Chapp told me, “that the crisis in the church – from the sexual-abuse crisis to the mismanagement of the Curia to the crisis in the Vatican to the crisis of secularism in Western society – all of these crises have one root cause: The leadership of the church lacks proper faith in Jesus Christ. They’re not living in a sense an evangelical life of poverty, chastity and obedience. They’re not living a radical life of devotion to the poor and the outcast and the marginal. They’re too concerned with worldly things. Now they’ve picked the man Francis who in a sense will reorient the church toward fundamental things of faith. I think this is critical.Yes, the cardinals responded to the challenge.”
Rod Dreher, who writes on religion and culture for the American Conservative, said Francis should do something dramatic to address the sexual abuse and other scandals.
“He can have a come-to-Jesus moment with some of these cardinals and bishops who have been the most egregious facilitators of abuse, covering it up,” Dreher said.
As the scandals and the cover-ups have cost Catholic leaders the moral authority required to act as good shepherds, the onslaught of a strident secularism, particularly in the West, has weakened Christianity generally.
“Benedict spoke of the dictatorship of relativism, the idea that there is no absolute truth, that truth is whatever you think truth should be,” said Dreher.
What bothers Dreher most is his fear that the young have drifted away.
“They don’t feel the need for God anymore,” he said. “We’ve become so rich, so craving of sensation, that we think we don’t need God.”
But can Pope Francis hold against such forces?
“I hope this pope pushes back hard against the age,” Dreher said.
And so do many of us.