Pope Frank: In the Footsteps of St Francis

Jovial, informal and compassionate, the new Pontiff has the qualities to restore faith in the Vatican and to promote women in the Church

Faith Features The Catholic Church
Illustration by Michael Daley

When, just after his election, Pope Francis begged the multitudes in St Peter’s Square for their blessing, reversing the usual papal invocation urbi et orbi, the BBC evidently wondered what to make of him. By the morning after, it had decided. It must mean that he was a “social justice Catholic”, the kind it invariably chooses to speak on its own Thought for the Day. The Todaypresenter Evan Davis cheerfully asked the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, whether Pope Francis would be the Catholic Gorbachev, which would of course make Benedict XVI the equivalent of Andropov and John Paul II that of Brezhnev. It would be difficult to imagine an analogy more ignorant and calculated to outrage Catholics, given that John Paul actually played a key role in overthrowing the Soviet Union. This, though, is the unforgiving milieu in which Pope Francis will have to live, often appealing to the world over the heads of the media.

One gauntlet that he will inevitably have to run is the lazy assumption that because he is a Latin American, and a Jesuit to boot, his main aim will be to steer the Church sharply to the Left. Andrew Brown in the Guardian exulted that Bergoglio’s election was “an extraordinary leap away from the conservative and cautious nature of the last two papacies”. Others, rather keener on conservatism and caution, agreed; and, though they kept their heads down, were privately appalled. They too assumed that his origins in the villas (slums) of Buenos Aires, where he is justly celebrated as a man of compassion and simplicity, must imply sympathy for some version of typically Latin American anti-capitalist populism — the politics that has brought Argentina, like so much of the continent, to its knees.

But neither the exultation of the Left nor the dejection of the Right is justified. Pope Francis does not fit the stereotype of the Latin American Jesuit of a generation ago, steeped in liberation theology and politicised to the point of lending support to revolutionary Marxist regimes. There were once many such priests, often Jesuits, but in 1978 their seemingly unstoppable force encountered an immovable object in the shape of John Paul II, a man who had had a lifetime’s experience of Marxists in his native Poland. Early in his pontificate, the Polish Pope took the Society of Jesus under his personal supervision. Then, together with Cardinal Ratzinger, he issued his Instructions on liberation theology, which explicitly banned the translation of Christian terms into Marxist ideology, while also challenging Catholics to develop a more authentic humanism of their own, including the “option for the poor” so beloved of priests working in Latin America, where the Church had traditionally been associated with extremes of social and economic inequality. On visits to the continent, John Paul reinforced his message by confronting, sometimes in person, those priests who persisted in their disobedience. The turning point came on the airport tarmac at Managua, Nicaragua, in 1983, when John Paul arrived to be greeted by the Sandinista government. Squaring up to Father Ernesto Cardenal, the minister of culture, the Pope wagged his finger and declared: “Regularise your position with the Church!” The spell of the Catholic Marxists was broken and they have been in retreat ever since. 

Pope Francis is a product of that epic confrontation: a Jesuit who sided with the Pope against the Marxist faction within his own order. He served as the Jesuits’ Provincial (head) in Argentina from 1973 to 1979, but was then banished from Buenos Aires by his more left-wing colleagues to run a seminary in the northern city of San Miguel de Tucumán. Eventually, however, his loyalty to Rome was noticed by the Pope and he was promoted, first to be auxiliary bishop and eventually, in 1998, to be Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Bergoglio’s enemies, both inside and outside the Society of Jesus, have never forgiven his principled stand. They accuse him of siding with the military regime that ruled Argentina in the 1970s, and specifically of abandoning two Jesuits who were imprisoned and tortured. Bergoglio always denied these allegations, insisting that he worked behind the scenes on their behalf, even securing an audience with the dictator, General Videla; both priests were in fact released. No hard evidence against Bergoglio has been produced, and the Argentine branch of Amnesty International told the respected American journalist John Allen that the claims against him of collaboration with the junta were all lies. Even so, it is a safe bet that attempts to smear his pastoral record will now be revived, especially if he continues to criticise the authoritarian regime of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as he has done. However eager she may be to capitalise on the euphoria that surrounds the Argentine Pope, Francis will be at pains to distance himself from Ms Kirchner’s demagogy, while she is quite capable of blackening the name of a man she once called an “inquisitor”.

While robustly denying these “slanders”, Pope Francis does not pretend that he was a hero of resistance during the murkiest period of his country’s history. In keeping with his emphasis on humility, Bergoglio and his fellow bishops apologised for the Church’s failure to do more to resist the junta during the “dirty war” of 1976-83. Predictably, that apology has not silenced accusations of complicity, which recall similar charges against Pius XII and even Benedict XVI, who was a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. In The Times, Ben Macintyre implied that Bergoglio ought to have risked martyrdom, like Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist, the last survivor of the plot against Hitler. But martyrdom is a course of action easier to preach than to practise.

Pope Francis will not, then, conform to the BBC’s image of the Latin American priest. However, he will be a radical in other ways. He will doubtless pick up the reform of his own order where John Paul left off, giving the Jesuits a fresh raison d’être as the vanguard of the New Evangelisation launched by the Polish Pope and driven forward by the German one. Mission and reform go hand in hand, especially where the Vatican itself is concerned. A new broom that will sweep out the Augean Stables of the papal administration is not so much a choice as a necessity. The secret dossier on corruption in the Curia, which Italian press reports suggest includes evidence of homosexual networks, will give Pope Francis some sleepless nights. Doubts have been expressed about whether a septuagenarian with one lung is strong enough to take on the Vatican; but a man accustomed to dictatorships, death squads and drug cartels is unlikely to be intimidated by a mitred mafia that, by Latin American (or even Italian) standards, is tame: more Father Brown than Dan Brown.

The expectation is that Pope Francis will take the legacy of his patron, St Francis of Assisi, seriously, but there is no consensus about what that might mean. The founder of the mendicant orders did not become the most popular saint of the Middle Ages without speaking truth to power. As a young aristocrat, he followed the Gospel literally, gave away all his wealth and won over the mightiest pope of them all, Innocent III, to his cause. St Francis not only spoke to birds and animals, praised creation in his Canticle of the Sun, and composed the great prayer that bears his name, but addressed his evangelism equally to kings, emperors and sultans as well as the poorest of the poor. This is what we may expect from Pope Francis, too, as he divests the papacy of its last vestiges of worldly power in favour of a spiritual authority that only grows with time. Benedict retired to be a pilgrim, and Francis will pick up that theme as he demands that the Church travel lightly in its pilgrimage on earth.

The most intractable and toxic problem for the new Pope, of course, is clerical child abuse, which still gives rise to scandal and has left an indelible stain on the Church. Pope Benedict did what could be done by way of apology and making amends. It is now for Pope Francis to turn this ecclesiastical and human catastrophe into an opportunity to right a historic wrong: the neglect of women in the modern Church. No sooner had St Francis founded his brotherhood of Franciscans in 1210 than he turned his attention to creating a similar order for women, the Poor Clares. It did not occur to him that women should be excluded from the new spiritual awakening that he had begun. Religious orders, especially for women, have fallen into terminal decline, but there are many other ways in which female energies can be mobilised. For more than 1,900 years, the Church was unrivalled in its ability to produce charismatic paragons of femininity who changed the course of history, from the Virgin Mary to Mother Teresa, from Hildegard of Bingen to Thérèse of Lisieux. Only in the last few decades did Catholicism and feminism become foes.

Both John Paul II, whose Theology of the Body addressed issues of sexuality, and Benedict XVI, whose encyclical Deus Caritas Est: De Christiano Amore focused on the various meanings of love, began a dialogue that Pope Francis needs to take much further. He will have to confront the fact that not only the priesthood and hierarchy, but the upper echelons of the Church in general, are exclusively male, and ostentatiously so. If, as we are told, this is a Pope who likes to listen, will he listen to the voices of women — and give them a voice in the councils of the Church? Are the men who have mismanaged the Vatican’s finances, or who have botched its media presentation, really so indispensable? Might not a woman have been more loyal than the butler who betrayed Benedict — an incident that may have been the last straw in his resignation? Pope Francis tells us that he trusted his sister, rather than a Roman tailor, to make his scarlet cardinal’s cassock. I hope that he will soon show, by his actions rather than words, that he trusts other women to take on real responsibilities in church governance.

Throwing open the windows of the Church, as John XXIII said, “so that we can see out and the people can see in”, is very much in the spirit of Pope Francis. In his first Mass after being elected, he warned against the Catholic temptation to transform faith into politics, to make the institution he leads into a mere “charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ”. On the other hand, he condemns “the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world”. Pope Francis, in keeping with his Jesuit mission and his Franciscan vow of poverty, has dedicated his pontificate “to find new ways to bring evangelisation to the ends of the earth”. He knows that the Church needs to look outwards, not inwards. 

Yet his emphasis on evangelisation does not imply a lack of respect and affection for non-Catholics. Last December, the man who would become Pope less than three months later celebrated Hannukah in Buenos Aires with his Jewish friends — a gesture that was much appreciated by the city’s 200,000 Jews, who were the victims of two deadly terrorist attacks in 1992 and 1994. In his public pronouncements, Pope Francis seems to have a knack for finding the right tone: jovial, informal, but above all frank. After his election, he teased his fellow cardinals: “May God forgive you!” Perhaps he will come to be known as Pope Frank.