Pope's future vision for church expected to bind simple style with 'complexity'
The Associated Press
Published Thursday, March 14, 2013 4:32PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 14, 2013 11:05PM EDT
VATICAN CITY -- At gatherings of Latin American bishops, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was often a star speaker about economic inequities in a profit-driven world. He also has used the forums to warn fellow church leaders about drifting from core Catholic values and teachings.
The twin messages are now expected to frame the beginning of the papacy of Pope Francis: Reinforcing the Vatican's views on issues such as birth control and women's ordination that will disappoint reform-minded followers, yet showing an activist streak that could hearten others pushing for greater attention to problems that include poverty and international debt.
These broad ideological strokes -- drawn clearly over decades in the Argentine church -- will likely be accompanied by growing nuances and initiatives demanded by the modern papacy that requires diplomatic skill, managerial acumen and a degree of pastoral flair.
His emphasis on clerical simplicity and populism, including efforts to keep divorced Catholics and unmarried mothers in the church's fold, could raise alarms among staunch conservatives about a reorientation of Vatican priorities after eight years of strict guidance under Benedict XVI, who spent most of his Vatican career as the main doctrinal enforcer.
Through lesser-known gestures and comments in the past, the first Latin American pontiff also has shown an inclination to expand interfaith outreach to Islam and Judaism, and efforts to further close the nearly 1,000-year estrangement with the Orthodox churches. The pope's historical namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, is described in church lore as walking unarmed to meet an Islamic ruler during the 13th century Crusades in a gesture of respect and shared humanity.
In his first Mass on Thursday as pope, Francis reinforced his pastoral priorities and service during a brief homily in the Sistine Chapel that was simple and inclusive, calling on all Catholics to help "build" the church and "walk" with the faith. Without such collective spirit, he said the underpinnings grow weak.
"What happens when children build sand castles on the beach?" he told the congregation that included the cardinals who elected him. "It all comes down."
The pope then showed a sterner side by citing the words of French writer Leon Bloy, an agnostic who experienced a strong religious conversion before his death in 1917: "He who doesn't pray to the Lord prays to the devil."
"To focus on the new pope only as a traditionalist is wrong, as is only to focus on him as a champion for economic justice," said Ambrogio Piazzoni, a church historian and vice-prefect of the Vatican library. "He is both and much more. This will be a papacy of complexity."
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, described the initial period of any papacy as "days of surprise."
But core elements of Pope Francis' pontificate are already informed by his Jesuit order. Its nearly 600-year history has been marked by hostility from the Vatican over perceived disobedience and independent-minded theological interpretations, although in recent decades, there has been a growing sense of co-operation and common purpose.
The Jesuit ethos is built strongly around academic rigour and missionary service -- and since the 1960s an association with so-called liberation theology, a Latin American-inspired view that Jesus' teachings imbue followers with a duty to fight for social and economic justice.
Francis has disavowed liberation theology as a misguided strain of Catholic tenets. But that does not mean he also rejects the ultimate goal. His addresses and homilies often circle back to the need for the church to rivet its attention on issues of economic failings, including the growing divides between the comfortable and needy, and the pressures of Western-style capitalism.
Such views are likely to play an increasingly high profile in Vatican affairs -- and win praise from some liberal factions in the church -- in contrast to Benedict, who spoke about issues of poverty but without Francis' credibility and direct links to grassroots church initiatives.
At a meeting of Latin American bishops in 2007, the future pope called on the church to purge the "social sin" of chronic poverty and economic inequality.
Irish Cardinal Sean Brady, who is among the church leaders alleged to have covered up sex abuse scandals, called the selection of the Buenos Aires archbishop a "historic decision in a number of ways." It acknowledges the church's demographic shifts in which nearly 40 per cent of Catholics live in Latin America, and it also picks a Jesuit for the first time.
Jesuits "are renowned for their teaching, servants of the pope, but also for the witness, certainly in our country, to the need to witness to the poor and caring for the weak and speaking for justice," Brady told reporters in Rome.
These are the kind of interpretations that could make Pope Francis a figure of both admiration and consternation.
There is no doubt about Francis' traditional groundings. He has spoken out resolutely in support of central Catholic tenets, echoing the words of Pope John Paul II to call abortion and contraception part of a "culture of death," and showing no public tolerance for homosexuality. In fights against plans in Argentina to legalize same-sex marriages, he described such unions as "a scheme to destroy God's plan."
But fellow church conservatives will have to readjust -- with varying degrees of comfort -- to his emphasis on hands-on, missionary-style outreach.
For some, it is a welcome return to the pastoral vigour of John Paul II for a church battered by abuse scandals and internal discord.
"When we were looking for who would be the next pope, we were concentrating on who would be the most compelling spiritual leader for the church today," said U.S. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., just hours after Francis' selection.
Others, however, face the prospect of losing a supporter of waning -- but symbolically important -- traditions such as the Latin Mass.
In an possible olive-branch comment, the breakaway Society of St. Pius X said it hopes the new pope will heed the divine calling of St. Francis to "rebuild" the church. The group was founded by the late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who split from Rome over interpretation of reforms from the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II, which revolutionized the church's relations with Jews and allowed for the celebration of Mass in languages other than Latin. The Vatican is currently in talks with the society on whether to return to papal control.
"What is certain is it's a great change of style, which for us isn't a small thing," Francis' authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press as he recalled how the former Cardinal Bergoglio would celebrate Mass with ex-prostitutes in Buenos Aires. "He believes the church has to go to the streets to express this closeness of the church and this accompaniment with the people who suffer."
The new pope, too, could extend the church's outreach in other directions.
His choice of Francis as his papal name brought immediate connections to stories of St. Francis' peaceful efforts to spread Christianity in the Muslim world, even amid the Crusades, which still taints Islamic views of the Vatican to this day.
In Saudi Arabia, the secretary-general of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, expressed "ardent hope" that the "relationship between Islam and Christianity will regain its cordiality and sincere friendship" under Francis.
Jewish leaders also see the new pope as an ally. He won wide praise for his aid to Buenos Aires' Jewish community following the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Center that killed 85 people. Iran has been blamed for the attack, but denied any links. A joint Argentine-Iranian "truth commission" is studying the evidence.
In one of the first international invitations, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Francis would be a "welcome guest in the Holy Land."
In Moscow, the powerful Russian Orthodox Church welcomed Pope Francis' "spiritual affinity" to the Orthodox churches and urged closer ties, which have been gradually improved by successive popes. The two branches of Christianity split in the 11th century over disputes that included papal authority.