September 30, 2014
A Franciscan year
Exactly one year ago today the advent of cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis on a March 13 confounded superstition — what is the balance of the 52 weeks since? For a start, he no longer belongs to Argentina (a homeland to which he is unlikely to return in any near future) — indeed his boundaries are not limited to the universal Church he heads since his impact has transcended all creeds and even religion itself to reach all seven billion of the world’s people and not just the billion or so baptized as Catholic. Almost all that impact has sprung from gestures, of course, and the Church still needs cleaning up about as much as it did a year ago (regardless of whether the terms of reference are carnal, financial or otherwise) but Francis should be seen as a work in progress — after all, it takes a long time to work your way up from the “end of the world” even if all roads lead to Rome.
“How many (army) divisions has the Pope?” asked Stalin — the answer is none (nor markets nor commodities) and yet his “soft power” seems to carry all before him. The splendour of the Vatican, the two millennia of history and the 10-digit population of the Church should not shroud its central purpose as the imitation of Christ, thus making humility and humanity essential virtues. And here Francis scores highly with his Flores birth and his unabashed support for San Lorenzo soccer team — the bookish Jesuit is nevertheless a master of the common touch. With such outreach Francis could so easily be a political tsunami and this time last year observers from all sides of the political spectrum detected in him a huge potential to be leader of the opposition, whether latent or even overt, but the papal talent for reinventing himself has banished any such possibility — Pope Francis can only be seen as a statesman. Anybody at the helm of the Vatican is by definition a political head of state but Francis has been spelling out with increasing clarity that he sees his role as a pastoral leader of human souls rather than as an oracle of doctrine like his predecessor Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis could only have become such a universal figure in an age of globalization and yet he should also be seen as its antithesis — his constant quest to humanize the economy. Perhaps he is almost too universal — perhaps he should be more discriminating and steer clear of some of the “selfie” snapshots he ends up in if he is to be judged by the company he keeps but then who are we to judge (as he famously said about gays)? Ultimately his mission is to take people to heaven but simply joining the world is a good first step.