Habemus Papam: Francis the builder, the moderate, the humble one

Habemus Papam: Francis the builder, the moderate, the humble one

“Now I want to give a blessing. But I ask favour. Please ask God to bless me.” Pope Francis, the most powerful religious leader on the planet, could not have made a more humble gesture than to bow and ask the world to pray for him. With that, the Catholic Church’s 266th pope set the tone for his leadership of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, as he seeks to steer the church out of a period of unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

For a 2000-year old Catholic Church, steeped in history and time-honoured tradition, the college of 115 Catholic Cardinals sprung quite a surprise on the world. The choice of Latin America’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio came as a shock as he was not among the top contenders for the papacy, and his election on Wednesday has rewritten the history books.

The new pope is the first ever non-European and Jesuit leader of the Catholic Church, chosen in the second vote on the second day of the conclave, the gathering of the cardinals behind closed doors in the historic Sistine Chapel. Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, who among other things has only one lung and prefers to take the bus, was an intriguing but tactical choice by the College of Catholic Cardinals.

Pope Francis, 76, although the runner-up in the 2005 papal election in which Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, was a rank outsider this time around, with the betting markets giving him a chance of between 0.7% and 2% of being elected. Benedict, now the first ever pope emeritus, prompted the papal election when he abdicated last month, saying he was no longer able to cope with the demands of the position.

The election of his successor has seen the Vatican relax some of the ancient and strict rules around the conclave, keeping a flow of communication and allowing camera footage of the cardinals taking the solemn oath of secrecy in the Sistine Chapel. However, once the doors of the chapel were locked on Tuesday, the election process was veiled in secrecy, with the conclave going into complete lockdown in the walled city state, not a single titbit of information about the goings-on leaking out.

The conclave gripped the world’s attention with millions watching in anticipation for the smoke signal heralding the new head of the Catholic Church. 

Shortly after 8 pm on Wednesday (SA time), a cold wet day in Rome, white smoke billowed from the copper and steel chimney above the Sistine Chapel, signalling the successful conclusion of the papal conclave. Shortly thereafter, amid cheers and celebrations from the thousands gathered, the bells at St Peter’s rang out, confirming that a new pope had been chosen, elected through a two-thirds majority.

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Photo: White smoke rises from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, indicating a new pope has been elected, March 13, 2013. White smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel and the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica rang out on Wednesday, signaling that Roman Catholic cardinals had ended their conclave and elected a pope to succeed Benedict XVI. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Excitement had been building in St Peter’s Square and the ringing of the bells brought people running through the streets of Rome to Vatican City.

For over an hour the world waited for the identity of the new pope. Inside the Sistine Chapel, the most senior of the electors, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, approached the pope-to-be and asked him, in Latin: “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?”

Once receiving his consent, he asked: “By what name do you wish to be called?” The newly elected pope was then taken to be robed in the Room of Tears, and then prayed before he was announced to the world.

His choice of name, Francis, after perhaps the most beloved Catholic saint, St Francis of Assisi, is also somewhat of a surprise as no other pope has ever chosen this name. It is being seen as reflective of the new pope’s desire for simplicity and rebuilding – the hallmarks of the life of St Francis, patron saint of animals and the environment, and founder of the Franciscan order. St Francis’s vocation is founded on the instruction he was believed to have received from God: “Francis, build my church.”

In a time of great stress and turmoil plaguing the Catholic Church, mostly through sexual abuse scandals in several parts of the world, the election and name of Pope Francis is being perceived as a new beginning for the church, and a time for rebuilding. The new descendent of St Peter is seen to have the right qualities and credentials but is also viewed with some scepticism.  

When the identity of the new pontiff was revealed by Cardinal Jean-Louis Pierre Tauran, it sent shockwaves around the world. Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is the first pope from the “New World” and spent most of his life in Argentina. His election is being heralded as a great tactical choice for the church as 47% of the world’s Catholics are in Latin America. The interruption of the succession of popes from Europe has been perceived as an acknowledgement of the growth of the church in the South and a move away from the Vatican bureaucracy known as the Curia. But he is also of Italian decent, making him more palatable than other “New World” candidates.

Still, while the break with tradition has been welcomed, there are questions about his age as he is just one year younger than Benedict XVI was when he was elected. The new pope also has only one lung – his other was removed after an infection when he was a teenager. According to Associated Press, he has been slowing down with age, and feeling the effects of having one lung.

Pope Francis has specialised in pastoral work in a lifetime of teaching and leading priests in Latin America, which commentators say are essential skills for a pope. From an evangelical background, with a traditional theology, he is likely to be strong on reform. According to his official biographer, Sergio Rubin, he has a self-effacing humility and his personal style is the antithesis of Vatican splendour. He has a Masters degree in chemistry.

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Photo: Roman Catholics celebrate the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the new Pope, at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, March 13, 2013. Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, delivered his first blessing to a huge crowd in St Peter’s Square on Wednesday night, asking for the prayers of “all men and women of good will” to help him lead the Catholic Church. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

And according to the National Catholic Reporter, he was “a Prince of the Church who chose to live in a simple apartment rather than the archbishop’s palace, who gave up his chauffeured limousine in favour of taking the bus to work, and who cooked his own meals.”

But he has courted controversy. In 2010 he called gay adoption a form of discrimination against children. And the National Catholic Reporter reported that in 2005, Pope Francis was accused by a human rights lawyer of helping the ruling junta in Argentina of kidnapping two liberal Jesuit priests who subsequently “disappeared” as part of the government’s “Dirty War” against leftists in 1976. He denied the charges.

Pope Francis also seems to be an opponent of austerity, most notably during his time as spiritual leader of Argentina when the country defaulted on its debt in 2002. He will therefore be closely watched to see how he responds to austerity debates in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

The Catholic Church in South Africa has welcomed the election of Pope Francis with great excitement. Spokesman for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Fr. Chris Townsend said the choice of the Latin American pope was a significant acknowledgment that church’s “centre of gravity has moved out of Europe”.

“It is a huge move from the cardinals. We have in this man someone known to be very simple in his lifestyle, but as a Jesuit, he is no fool,” Townsend said. Jesuits form the largest single religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church, also known colloquially as “God’s Marines”, and are distinguished for their work in education, intellectual research, social justice and cultural pursuits.  

Townsend said like most of the world’s Catholics, he yearned to be at St Peter’s Square for the historic moment when the new pope was introduced and gave his first blessing but said the scenes in Buenos Aires must also have been “thrilling”.

Townsend said there was particular excitement in the Catholic world about the name “Francis” which symbolises poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding. He said the church in South Africa would be hoping for a visit from the new pope but also more attention on the developing world.

The World Youth Day celebration, scheduled for Rio later this year, and expected to be attended by about two million young Catholics is expected to be Pope Francis’s first trip abroad, Townsend said. The trip might now be combined with a stopover in Argentina so the new pope can visit his home country. 

Townsend said he last had contact with South Africa’s Cardinal Wilfred Napier on Tuesday morning and was not sure if he had a particularly close relationship with Pope Francis. He said the church in South Africa would however be relieved to welcome back Napier, who was much needed back home.

“He would have also been a good choice but I am happy that he was not chosen this time,” Townsend said.

After his historic first blessing, and bidding the crowd “Good evening and have a good rest”, the new pope revived the defunct papal twitter account, “Pontifex” and sent out his first message: “HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM”.

A communicating, humble, modern pope may just be what the world needs right now. DM

Main photo: Newly elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina appears on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica after being elected by the conclave of cardinals, at the Vatican, March 13, 2013. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez


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