With the election of Pope Francis yesterday, the College of Cardinals has taken a step forward in the direction of a more global Catholic Church, Boston College theologians have said.
Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the first Jesuit to become pope, as well as the first pope from South America. Although he was reportedly runner up to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the last papal election, he was not initially considered a serious candidate for the papacy during this conclave, mostly due to his age-he is 76 years old. His election occurred on only the second day of the papal conclave, much faster than many theologians were expecting given the unique nature of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation.
Initial reactions at BC to Bergoglio’s selection have been both surprised and excited.
“It’s a major surprise,” said Rev. Liam Bergin, an adjunct professor in the theology department who taught in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University for 24 years. “I would say the one question people will have tomorrow as the dust settles is his age.” Bergin was quick to point out, however, that Pope John XXIII, the pope who called for the historic Second Vatican Council, was 78 years old when he was elected.
Rev. Ronald Tacelli, S.J., and Richard Gaillardetz, both professors in the theology department, reacted similarly to Bergoglio’s election.
“I was surprised because of his age,” Tacelli said. “I thought he might be pope the last time around and he was my own personal choice this time, my own personal favorite, so I’m very happy and very hopeful.”
Gaillardetz, the president elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America, said the selection of an older pope-while surprising-is a strategic move.
“Although he is the first Jesuit and the first pope from Latin America, I am most surprised that the conclave elected a man who is 76 years old,” Gaillardetz said. “My suspicion is that his somewhat advanced age is a way of hedging bets against the bold move of electing a pope from the global south.”
The selection of a pope from South America is unprecedented, and many theologians have speculated that it is a move toward a more global church.
“The fact that he’s coming from Latin America means he has a global focus, and the fact that he’s a Jesuit, his view of the world is hopefully like our Jesuits here-shaped by a global, international vision of the world,” said Kevin Ahern, GA&S ’13, who served as the International President of the International Movement of Catholic Students from 2003 to 2007. “I think he will be a lot like John Paul II in having a lot of global energy.”
Bergoglio’s selection of the name Francis is also considered significant-reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi’s rebuilding of the church during a time of corruption and scandal, as well as his dedication to humility and simplicity. It is also the first time since the 900s, excepting Pope John Paul I, that an elected cardinal has selected a new papal name, potentially signaling a new era for the church.
“St. Francis of Assisi lived in a very troubled time in the church, when there was a need to return to the purity of the gospel and to a simple way of living, and it seems obvious that that is what inspires the pope as he begins,” Bergin said. “Francis, in that great vision he had in front of the cross-the cross spoke to him, saying ‘rebuild my church,’ and that was the motto for Francis all his life. Bergoglio, I’m sure, is making that his motto too.”
Ahern agreed with Bergin’s analysis.
“The name is awesome-Francis,” Ahern said. “St. Francis of Assisi invokes a sense of simplicity and humility, a sense of preferential option for the poor, which our new pope seems to have reflected in his personal living style.”
As a cardinal, Bergoglio-the son of immigrant, working class parents-is said to have maintained a simple lifestyle: living in his own small apartment, taking the bus, and cooking his own meals. “He has lived a life of such simplicity that no one can doubt his integrity and his basic human likability,” said Rev. James Weiss, associate professor of church history and director of the Capstone Program.
Gaillardetz pointed out that because of his Jesuit identity, the name Francis could simultaneously be referring to St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis Xavier. “A Jesuit who takes the name Francis could certainly intend by that choice, on the one hand, the recollection of that great Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier,” he said. “Such a choice would signal a renewed emphasis on the church’s evangelical mission in the modern world.”
Francis is known for being an ideological conservative, and many have predicted little change in the most popular ideological issues, like same-sex marriage and women’s ordination, during his papacy. Bergin described Francis as “an orthodox conservative man,” while Tacelli said it is likely that he will “conserve the tradition.”
“I imagine on many of the popular hot moral doctrinal issues he will maintain the Church’s line,” Bergin said.
Acknowledging the conservatism, Weiss said that Francis is nevertheless a pope that even Catholics who are more liberal can be excited about.
“Bergoglio is the complete package-European ancestry, South American life, studied in Germany, advocate for social justice, clear exponent of church teachings-clear, but never harsh,” Weiss said. “He can confront issues, but he doesn’t condemn people.”
Gaillardetz said that the election of a theological, doctrinal conservative could be a way of balancing out the risk of selecting a pope from the global south-an unprecedented move by the College of Cardinals.
Unlike his predecessor, Bergoglio is not known for being a powerhouse theologian. Rather, he is seen by many as a pragmatic problem solver, a quality theologians hope he will apply to his role as Vicar of Christ. During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio dealt extensively with issues relating to the large poor Catholic population of Argentina.
Stephen Pope, professor of moral theology, was particularly concerned with Bergoglio’s dedication to social justice in Argentina.
“I’m most excited for the fact that he’s a major voice for social justice and human rights in Argentina, and really cares about the poor,” Pope said. “He’s really concerned about the effects of globalization on poor people, and resists the idea that we can make an assessment of an economy just based on their [Gross National Product]. He wants to talk about how the distribution to the people on the margins is another important criterion. He has a very strong commitment to the preferential option for the poor, and he’s not approaching it as an abstract intellectual issue.”
“The fact that he is from Argentina sends a very good signal to the Catholic world,” Tacelli said. “I also hope that, given his background, he’ll be very sympathetic in speaking out in sympathy for the rights of oppressed peoples, especially oppressed Christian minorities the world over.
“I think what he is going to do is to help the church be run in a better way, in a way that is not fraught with confusion, with hampering and crippling rivalries-that is all to the good. I think that he will put the Curia in good working order, and it needs to be put in good working order.”
Weiss similarly spoke of Bergoglio as a mediator that can help heal the church.
“It is a great sign of hope for reconciliation among the divided parties in the Catholic Church,” he said.
“The Cardinals can create an impression of arrogance and indifference and secrecy, and [Francis’] humility is really an alternative to that,” Pope said. “It gives a very positive view of the church to the world.”
With the election of Bergoglio, many theologians, including Thomas Groome, a professor in the theology department, foresee a papacy dissimilar to the kind put forth by his two predecessors.
“It heralds a different style of papacy,” Groome said. “John Paul II and Benedict were basically in continuity with each other, so we’ve had 35 years of a similar pontificate. This has to be a departure-he’s coming from a different place, and a different spirituality, so I think it signals a new day for the Church.”
In selecting the name Francis, Gaillardetz also stated his hope that Bergoglio is looking to move the Church forward. “One can only hope that Pope Francis was announcing his intention to be an agent of a curial reform that is so badly needed,” Gaillardetz said.
Rev. Robert Imbelli, who is currently in Rome on sabbatical, spoke to the high hopes for Francis’ future as pope.
“Many think that he will bring to his office of Bishop of Rome the spiritual depth and simplicity of Saint Francis and the intellectual formation of a son of Saint Ignatius,” Imbelli said. “Strikingly, before imparting his first ‘apostolic blessing,’ Francis requested that the massive crowd filling Saint Peter’s Square bless him with their prayer. A deeply impressive beginning of his ministry as successor of Saint Peter.”