Could Pope Francis be the new John XXIII?

As usual the experts got it exactly wrong. Don’t cry for me Argentina, indeed. After a lot of drama and more than a touch of theatre, a diffident, possibly slightly traumatised Pope Francis I emerged blinking on the balcony of St Peter’s. For a while it seemed as if he wouldn’t speak, then slowly and gently he smiled and in a low voice greeted the people of his new diocese, Rome.
Little wonder than the occasion seemed to get to him. He’s 76, a long way from home, as he mentioned, and his life will be completely transformed. Nobody (and certainly not himself) believed that he wouldn’t be using his return ticket to Argentina.
His appointment was totally unexpected. He was never included in dispatches. No one had mentioned him as a possibility. And suddenly this low-key figure emerged from the shadows with everyone asking, Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?
A God of surprises?
Eight years ago, when (with a greater flourish than the cardinal-deacon was able to summon last night) the then cardinal had announced that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the new pope, my heart sank as I was convinced that God that the Holy Spirit had got it wrong. Nothing during his pontificate, apart probably from Benedict’s decision to retire, convinced me that I was wrong. More of the same – after the long pontificate of John Paul II – was what we didn’t need. Benedict XVI felt like Pius XII all over again.
Maybe Francis I is the new John XXIII. Around the same age, an unexpected appointment, an outsider brought in from the shadows. Just maybe the slight, diffident Argentinian might surprise us. Of course, we don’t know what we’re getting and it may well be the game the cardinals have so often played: an interim appointment, the equivalent of kicking the papal can down the road.
From the outside it looks like a failure to grasp the many nettles but then we believed John XXIII was an interim appointment, a ‘stop-gap pope’ who went on to transform the Catholic Church.
So what has Pope Francis going for him? For one thing he’s not from Rome. While he has had contact with the Vatican he’s from far enough away to have a realistic perspective on the shenanigans that will no doubt now begin to be unmasked. Whether he has the backbone or the energy or the stomach for tackling the vested interests in the Curia and the elderly cosseted courtiers that control the Church is another question.
A second positive note is the name Francis. He may well have the founder of the Jesuits in mind when he chose the name Francis but for most people there’s only one St Francis and the new pope seems to have something of that humility and gentleness and softness of the saint from Assisi. After all when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires he chose to live in a small apartment rather than the archbishop’s palace, took the bus to work and cooked his own meals.
We could do with a ‘soft’ pope, a Francis, someone whose humanity would be as evident as the ‘firmness’ of the last two pontificates, though his hard-line stances on abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception would indicate a hard core beneath the soft exterior.
A third positive note is that he is from the Third World, where most of the Catholics of the world now live so we can expect a different emphasis from the recent papal obsession with Europe and hopefully a different style from the dogmatism of recent years. I hope that unlike John Paul he won’t want us all to become Poles (or Argentinians) and unlike Benedict he won’t be talking about ‘authentic Catholics”. I hope he’ll throw the cloak of belonging a little bit wider than his predecessors.
Pope Francis is also a Jesuit, who will be able to draw on the resources and acumen of an order of priests that has given extraordinary service to the Church. Jesuits, of course, come in all shapes and sizes but invariably they have great respect for what might be called a ‘robust approach’ to the intellectual life and a gift for pushing out boats in unexpected directions.
So what can we make of this 266th pope who presents as a quietly-spoken and humble man but from whom we expect so much and know so little? It is said that he was runner-up to Benedict at the last conclave and that he was considered a unifying figure between those who held the line against change – he was known not to be impressed by some of his liberal fellow-Jesuits – and those who wanted the Church to reform along Vatican Two lines. It will be interesting to see how he will respond to the growing conviction that things simply have to change in the Church, that we can’t go on the way we were. Not doing anything is no longer an option, even for a 76 year-old pope.
Hopefully, with Pope Francis I, the breath of the Spirit may be blowing in a different direction. God may well have surprised us.

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  1. If another ecumenical council is convened, it will be nothing like Vatican II. The temper of our times is totally different. Back then the Church enjoyed a high degree of institutional prestige and respect, and was in a position to take risks (or so people thought). Bishops were optimistic about the Church’s future prospects and had good reason to be. Today the Church is mired in public discredit and scandal; the same impulse for dialogue with the modern world (which no longer wants dialogue with the Church anyway, because it sees Catholicism as increasingly irrelevant) doesn’t exist. From now on the emphasis in the Church will be more on consolidation and ‘getting on our own house in order’. If there is a Vatican III, it will resemble Vatican I more than Vatican II.
    Be careful what you wish for!

  2. Don’t look now folks, but I think, we have a mystic as pope….a mystic pope, who will hopefully have the strength and perseverance to apply the hermeneutic of reform! I am hopeful that with choosing compassionate leaders, particularly for the CDF, ministers like Tony Flannery will be “working again”, so to speak.
    One other thought! Given, that the new Pope Francis the First, refused to live in his bishop’s palace…….are the bishops around the globe tonight, still feeling ‘comfortable’ in their palatial dwellings?

  3. Anne Walsh says:

    What a hopeful time for the church.
    Yes Pope Francis may well be our new John XX111.
    His simplicity and connection with the poor is a reminder of what the catholic church and its founder Jesus of Nazareth was all about.
    We can only pray that he can deal with the Curia in a firm and transparent way.
    Indeed we can hope too that our own plea- as Irish people and priests – for justice for those priests who have ben silenced – will be listened to with a sincere ear and honest heart.
    His pastoral experience, his disinterest in pomp and his love for justice gives me great hope today.

  4. Des Gilroy says:

    An excellent, very balanced piece at short notice by Brendan Hoban. While it is too early to form a firm opinion, there are some signs to suggest we should be optimistic. Pope Francis has a track record of being first and foremost a pastor, a man who led a simple life, caring for his flock and particularly the poor, a man who preferred an apartment to a palace. That has to be a lesson for many in the episcopate. Secondly, his first words in which he referred to himself as the Bishop of Rome rather than as Pope, also gives hope that Francis might see himself as primarily a bishop, first among equals, and that the collegiality envisaged at Vatican II might breath again after the strangulation by the Curia in the years since. Let us pray to the Spirit that Francis has the strength, determination and energy to take on this great challenge and succeed.

  5. With that gorgeous smile and the fact that he cooks his own dinner, there’s hope for women in the Church yet! Céad Míle Fáilte, Papa Francis!

  6. Con Carroll says:

    Can we as people on this website be a people of vision and hope? Do we need to keep on going on about theology Spiritual issues of 1970s/80s? Have we a vision of solidarity

  7. Bob Hayes says:

    From the above article, referring to Joseph Ratzinger’s election in 2005, ‘I was convinced that God that the Holy Spirit had got it wrong’. Is this how far the ACP has come? Are God and the Holy Spirit to be subjected to a critique, to the ‘judgement’ of members of the ACP Leadership Team? I am shocked.
    I very much welcome the election of Pope Francis and his declaration that the Church of God must focus on its missionary role and not disintegrate into nothing more than a ‘compassionate NGO’. Deo Gratias!

  8. Brendan Butler says:

    Let’s hold our judgement until we see who he appoints as his ‘strong men’ in the Curia.
    I would have been more impressed if he had indicated he would move to the Lateran Basilica which is our first Mother Church and the diocesan seat of the bishop of Rome.

  9. Excellent article by Brendan Hoban. I hope it emerges that he played a heroic role during the Dirty War when some of the Argentinian Hierarchy seemed disturbingly close to that murderous regime.

  10. Eileen Coyne says:

    I wonder if our new Pope ever saw the film “Shoes of the Fisherman”. It springs to my mind whenever I look at him. I’m moved by him in a way I haven’t been since the untimely death of Pope John Paul I. I’m praying it’s not just a case of wishful thinking.

  11. Peter Shore says:

    Never fear Con (@8). Most Catholics have long ago moved on from those “liberal” issues that keeps the ACP stuck in a 1970s timewarp. Either they have pulled up the tent pegs altogether and ceased to care about the content of Catholicism, or they have realised that the gender- and sex-obsessed agendas of the liberals and the media have nothing to do with authentic Catholic spirituality and have embraced the Church envisioned by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I feel sorry for the people looking for Pope Francis to be the “reformer” that they didn’t get with either of the previous two. It’s only a matter of time before the unpleasant realisation that yes, this Pope is a Catholic, just like his predecessors.

  12. Brendan Cafferty says:

    I see the well known pundit Michael Kelly of IC has twittered that Brendan Hoban is surprised that Pope Francis is against abortion ! Kelly who gets a lot of time on radio/tv also got it wrong, and that irrelevant tweet from him will not take away from an excellent piece by Brendan Hoban. I think a lot of people will look to new Pope to do a lot, perhaps more than he can. Maybe one of the first things he can do is look at question of compulsory celibacy- why can married Anglicans who change over to Rome continue as Catholic priests ? Also i hope he invites back all those priests who left, make it a warm house for them. Also I hope he lifts the stupid sanctions on good priests like Brian Darcy and Tony Flannery. Things are in crisis, so it may be a last chance saloon to retrieve the situation.
    Francis may be a Gorbachev also. Lets remember Reagan’s words to him in Berlin beside the famous wall and Brandenburg Gate ” Tear down that wall, open this gate”

  13. I like the man.
    I’ve seen images and videos of him wash the feet of addicts and others with AIDS, having Masses for women degraded by prostitution, and his mixing with the poor. The man has something right.
    He mixes with such people knowing those very people can raise the rest of us to their level. Just like Jesus knew. Loving.
    While the ‘faithful’ Catholics argue about conservatism and liberalism, the ‘wise virgins’ go mix with human beings, filling their lamps with real oil that gives true light to the world’s dark places.
    I have not had much thought about any pope at all to tell the truth. I ‘felt’ something though watching this man step out, even before he spoke.
    I admit that what a pope says about anything much regarding doctrines or that has little if any impact on how I live my life. Not because I don’t respect or believe what they may or may not say or teach. Just that I believe in my own capacity to learn from my own real experience of real living too.
    But I do feel the man has given good example already in the little he has said and the way he seems to do things.
    That he takes ‘poverty of spirit’ seriously it would seem speaks volumes.

  14. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Just two quotes that may apply to Francis:
    1. From Federico Lombardi, (then presumed) outgoing papal spokesman, the day before the Conclave:
    “As a Jesuit, I am in service to the Church. I do what I am told. I received my mission. If they tell me, ‘Look, you’ve done enough, we’ve got another guy for the job,’ that’s no problem with me.”
    2. “Collecta de Missa Pro-Inaugurando Romano Pontifice
    Lord God of Conclaves, Cardinals and Consistories –
    Thou who knowest our overweening need to pigeonhole Thy servant Francis
    and shoehorn him into the homespun template of our predictions and predilections,
    grant, we beseech Thy puissant Majesty, that,
    enlightened by a modicum of Googling and ignoring the ramblings of Agnew & McGarry,
    we may neither envelop Thy servant in the clouds of unknowing
    nor, like the Guardian, render him overnight a theologian of liberation in the shoes of Thy servants Boff, Sobrino or Cardenal
    as we struggle to know our Argentina from our Ecuador,
    our Buenos Aires from our Bogotá, our Medellin from our Managua or Nuestras Malvinas –
    this we fervently implore in order that Thy servant whom Thou hast inscrutably chosen from the ends of Thy creation
    may get on with the job which Thy Holy Spirit has landed him with, second time around, though why She couldn’t have settled on Schonborn may be a query for another time and place:
    Haec humiliter imploramus per Dominum Nostrum &c … R/ Amen ”
    [Patent pending; Vox Clara recognitio in the post]

  15. If I understand things correctly, the Cardinals are not wearing the red dresses for the papal inauguration, but a simple black or brown frock…….I had a chuckle thinking about the following scenario…..Given the Pope’s simplicity and intention, that he, and now probably, the Vatican walk with the rest of the pilgrim church….and in that simplicity, the Pope was used to cooking for himself…..Will there be a kitchen and household duty roster? Does he say….okay, we are going to cook our meals, and clean up after ourselves!…..What did he say? He said, we are going to cook and clean up after ourselves….What is a dat? cooking?….cleaning? Non capiche! Oh, and there will be no car to take you around, unless, it is very far,…..we can bicycle or use the bus….the bus? What he say, use a da bus? Yep…..Mama Mia……

  16. Allen Murphy says:

    Sadly Brendan missed the boat on Benedict. He was a great pope and Brendan could not tie his shoes. Ireland is in trouble because many Irish priests have essentially ceased to be catholic. Ireland needs a new seminary and faithful priests who adhere to the real teachings of vatican 2 and not some liberal ersatz facsimile. Vatican 2 taught the need to obey the ordinary magisterium and not just ex cathedra statements. The prayer of many Irish in the USA is that Ireland, beginning with bishops and priests, teach and adhere to the Catholic faith.

  17. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Darlene, try not to be so racist about Italians and their language. Italian cardinals don’t usually speak some form of pidgin inglesiano. Besides, Papa Francisco/Francesco is apparently not a very good cook despite years of bachelor practice. Let’s hope he doesn’t sack all the Vatichefs in the cause of simplicity. He can’t be running out to the Borgo Pio restaurants every day.

  18. Joe O'Leary says:

    Comunione e liberazione make their presence felt in St Peter’s Square as if to say “we are the pope’s armada”. The ecclesiology of all these new movements undercuts the bishops and goes for a hotline to the pope. This is a formula for ecclesial anarchy. Their attitude to Martini tells a lot. If Francis adopted a similar ecclesiology he would deeply disappoint the worlds’ bishops who want collegiality, that is, who want a curia that is their servant rather than their master.

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