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by A. N. Wilson

Giuseppe Cacace—AFP

A Jesuit pope, a golden opportunity for change.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]bemus papam! The first Jesuit. The first pope from the Americas. And, at first, bafflement on St. Peter’s Square since Jorge Mario Bergoglio wasn’t exactly a household name.

Then, there was an absolutely palpable joy, spreading first around the square, and then out, around the world. The feeling, an irresistible one, was one of relief that we have a new man. “You know the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome,” said Francis I, the freshly elected pontiff with a little laugh, as he stood on the balcony in front of the faithful. “It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth. But here we are … ”

Indeed, here we are. With these few words, the new pope made a gentle allusion to what everyone had been dreading—namely, more of the same.

Poor old Benedict XVI. Though he wasn’t exactly God’s Rottweiler as his enemies in the press had depicted him, Benedict was a Vatican insider, the consummate wheeler-dealer. He knew the Curia, the Papal Court, through and through. He knew its devious ways. He knew—he must have known—the extent of its outright criminality. And perhaps, the longer he remained pope, he got to know too much.

When a pope goes—whether through death or resignation—the whole Curia resigns and has to be reappointed. One theory has it that Benedict realized a clean sweep was necessary and that the only way for it to happen was to resign, thereby forcing the resignation of the Curia mafiosi, who had presided over so many appalling scandals, including the systematic cover-up of child abuse, sleazy sex scandals, money laundering, corruption of all kinds, and murder. (A couple spring readily to mind: the assassination of a Swiss Guard who acted as a gay prostitute to priests and Vatican bureaucrats—killed just before Benedict XVI took office—and the 1982 murder of Roberto Calvi, found hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London after $1.2 billion of Vatican money had gone missing. Beyond those deaths, many of us will never believe that the patriarch of Venice, who lasted just three weeks after being elected as Pope John Paul I, died a natural death.)

The Curia, made up of men up to their throats in all these shady dealings, has held the Roman church in its iron grip since the 19th century—really since the papacy lost its temporal power at the time of Garibaldi.

Now there is the hope for change.

If I had to be cheeky and write an open letter to Pope Francis, what would I beg him to do—on top of reforming the Curia, cleaning up the banking scandal, and drawing a line under the child-abuse scandal by a full acknowledgment of the extent of the appalling problem?

I think I would ask two things of the new pope, while knowing he has rather a lot on his desk right now: one would be to look at the land that gave birth to the Savior, and at the whole Middle East. All over the Eastern Mediterranean, and in North Africa, the descendants of the earliest Christians—Easter Orthodox, Copts, and others—are being persecuted. In the lands that gave birth to Christianity, Christianity is dying before our eyes. Please, Bishop Francis, tread in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi, who went to the Crusaders to preach peace, who went to the Muslims and spoke to them of Christ.

Above all, I would ask, go to the Eastern Christians and see if it is not possible to heal the wounds of Christendom and unite the church once more. That which unites Christians—faith in Christ—must be more important than that which divides, and if only the bishop of Rome and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople belonged to the same church, the persecuted Christians of the east would feel so empowered, so enriched. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Catholics were in communion with their fellow Christians in Israel-Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, and Egypt?

Of course, in order to persuade the Orthodox to unite with the Roman Catholics, the pope would have to abandon the absurd pretensions of the First Vatican Council, at the conclusion of which, Pope Pius IX declared himself infallible. As well as ridiculous, this was blasphemous, and it would do so much for the standing, not only of the papacy, but also of Christianity throughout the world, if the pope simply renounced it.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council, there has been a war between those who wanted the church to embrace “collegiality”—in which the authority of the church was shared through the bishops in all parts of the world—and those who believed in a papal monarchy, and the absolute centralized power of the Curia. It is clear from Francis’s opening words that he favors collegiality. He will not be laying down the law from above, so much as sharing in Christ’s authority with his brother bishops.

By introducing himself to the Romans simply as their bishop, rather than as the supreme pontiff, Francis has humbly made the first step along the road toward sanity.

But the pope faces an uphill struggle. Even as John Paul II wowed the world and Benedict XVI minced about Rome in baroque vestments, the membership of the church hemorrhaged, especially in the developed world. Though one fifth of the world’s population is Roman Catholic, many are lapsed. One in 10 Americans is an erstwhile Catholic, and in many parts of the U.S., after the child-abuse scandal, the church has been reduced to nothing—something that holds true in Ireland, too.

Meanwhile, the Curia has remained fixed in its criminality, allowing child-abusing bishops and priests to go unpunished. And the church, supposedly on the side of the poor, has been involved in worse financial scandals than anything to be found on the shady side of Wall Street.

Not that Francis arrives with an entirely clean slate. He is dogged by stories that he didn’t do enough to speak out against the “dirty war” of the thugs and torturers during Argentina’s dark days of dictatorship.

But at this moment, he has a golden opportunity. He comes, literally, from a new world, and he could help the church become what so many of its members already believe it to be: the outward sign on this earth of Christ’s continuing presence here.

Undoubtedly elected by fellow outsiders, not only is Francis the first pope from the Americas, but he is also the first Jesuit—and the popes haven’t always taken kindly to the Jesuits.

Indeed, Clement XIV was elected in 1769 on a specifically anti-Jesuit ticket and obediently suppressed the Jesuits altogether in 1773. Many Jesuits bravely held on, keeping to their rule, until the order was reconstituted in 1814.

In our own day, John Paul II, that doughty anti-Marxist warrior from Poland, sniffed that the Jesuits, particularly in Argentina, had more than a whiff of communism about them and came to detest their “liberation theology”—a theology that espouses Christ’s Gospel can only be lived out in a world where social justice is paramount.

John Paul II marginalized the Jesuits, favoring instead the rather dire Opus Dei, the group that did so much to sustain the power of Spain’s dictator General Franco—as firmly allied to the right in politics as the modern Jesuits (in many countries) seem to be allied to the left.

Pope Francis is highly traditional in his interpretation of the church’s teaching on such matters as gay marriage, women priests, and abortion. But he is also radical enough to believe that these matters, much as they occupy the minds of headline writers in newspapers, are not the essence of the Christian Gospel. Christ lived among the poor, he was himself a poor man, and he told his disciples that insofar as they had fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, they had done it to him, the Incarnate God. This is the Christ worshipped and served by the new pope.

Of course, it is the Christ worshipped by his predecessors also. But there were undoubted signs, in his first words from the balcony, and by his appearance, that tell us we’re right to be optimistic for change.

Benedict—with his comfortable apartment, his grand piano, and his vestments—loved the trappings of office and brought all sorts of bejeweled hardware out of storage to drape about his person. (Much of it hadn’t been seen since the reign of Pius XII and might, instead, usefully be sold to pay compensation to the victims of child abuse, and also to pay for food for the starving world.)

Francis, by contrast, is the archbishop of Buenos Aires, who gave up his palace and his chauffeur-driven limo in favor of a bus pass and a one-bedroom apartment where he cooked his own meals. As the simple wooden cross around his neck testifies, this pope isn’t interested in those bejeweled vestments and crucifixes, and that sends a good signal to the poor of the world, both in the Americas and in Africa.

Most Catholics are not interested in Roman politics, know nothing of Curial tricks, and have no interest in molesting children. They believe, as do their Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant brothers and sisters, that God came to earth as a poor man, to bring us closer to Himself. It was said in the Middle Ages that this message had been forgotten—especially the message about embracing poverty and understanding, not only how we can help the poor, but also how they could teach us. The message of the pauper Christ, that is, was forgotten, until someone came to remind us of it all over again. That person was Francis of Assisi.

Whether Jorge Mario Bergoglio chooses to follow that Francis, or St. Francis Xavier, he is doomed to failure. He is a clever man, and he knows this, as we cheer him on his way.

From our March 29, 2013, issue; A Golden Opportunity for Change.

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