From the moment he walked out onto the Vatican balcony following the papal election, Jorge Mario Bergoglio forged an image all his own. Having lived a life of simplicity, the new Pope Francis wasn’t about to abandon it, even with the honor and prestige his new office brings.
A modest man of carefully chosen words, it was fitting that Francis opened his speech with two simple words: “Buona sera” (good evening). There was an immediate connection with the crowd in St. Peter’s Square: He thanked them, joked with them, prayed with them, and inspired their hearts. Graciously, “before all else” he asked everyone to pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict, then recited the Our Father and Hail Mary, before blessing his audience and finally “the whole world . . . all men and women of good will.”
Those who know Pope Francis say this understated and welcoming style, which moves people by its spontaneity and authenticity, is part of his immense pastoral appeal. He avoids placing himself above others, and speaks to people on an equal level.
His consistent humility, however, has never led Pope Francis to shrink from speaking out, or taking a bold stand, when the circumstances require it. He understands the importance of apostolic firmness.
As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires he waged a strong campaign in defense of life and the Church’s teachings on the Christian family, despite enduring attacks from the militantly secular Argentine government and its allies. Francis has been equally outspoken in his commitment to the poor, calling to account anyone who mistreats or neglects them.
Perhaps most impressively, he has repeatedly warned clergymen not to fall prey to the sins of worldliness, careerism, and vanity, and exhorted them to live out the gospel, and not just sanctimoniously preach it to others. As the Catholic Herald commented in a profile of Cardinal Bergoglio before he became pope: “When he does speak . . . it is dramatic. Bergoglio thunders like an Old Testament prophet,” and his listeners take note.
Pope Francis has always been clear about where these two virtues—simplicity and fortitude—originate:
The Holy Spirit guides us and ensures that we have two very important attitudes. . . . The first is meekness that says: “Don’t quarrel, brothers, you are my sons, good, beloved.” The Lord has told us the Spirit teaches us to be as brothers among ourselves, therefore to love each other, to be united. The second virtue seems contrary but is not contrary: it is strength. Strength is the witness of Jesus Christ. Strength gives witness to Jesus: of not being afraid to be a Christian. This, the Holy Spirit will give us.
If the world is surprised by the elevation of Cardinal Bergoglio, his fellow cardinals certainly weren’t. His spirituality is renowned, and of course he was among the leading contenders for the papacy back in 2005, and now his time has arrived.
But it is true that his austere and demanding ways have not always been appreciated by everyone. As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once noted, writing about the future pontiff: “He has suffered the slings and arrows of fellow Jesuits of a more ‘progressive’ bent.”
In 1973, Cardinal Bergoglio was appointed the Jesuit provincial for Argentina, during an extremely difficult time for the country and the society. Argentina suffered under a brutal military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, and how the Church and Jesuits reacted to it has been in dispute ever since. Though his biographer affirms that Cardinal Bergoglio “has been very critical of human rights violations during the dictatorship,” that hasn’t prevented critics from very unfairly trying to link him with the junta.
What is clear is that Cardinal Bergoglio took a strong stand in defense of the oppressed during his leadership post, but refused to support the aberrant and Marxist-infected “liberation theology,” championed by certain Jesuits, which only added to Latin America’s travails. In 1980, Bergoglio was reassigned to teaching high school, a job rarely taken by a former Jesuit superior.
Many have described that sojourn as a forced “exile” and an act of humiliation—and for many men of accomplishment, it would have been. But the remarkable thing is that Fr. Bergoglio never complained about it, nor considered it a “demotion.” He knew there is immense value in teaching students, or indeed any “small” vocation in life, even if it is away from the limelight.
Had he remained teaching, Bergoglio would have gladly embraced that as a gift, and as his new mission in life. But Heaven obviously had other plans. Pope John Paul II appointed him an auxiliary bishop in 1992, an archbishop in 1998, and a cardinal in 2001. It is those providential events, combined with his record as a sensitive pastor and model of Christian humility, that has given the Church its first Latin American and Jesuit Pope, as we await his formal installation tomorrow.
Pope Francis has been called a “conservative,” and that is true on the doctrinal plane, if conservatism means a sincere attachment to Catholic orthodoxy. But his spirituality is anything but conservative in a static sense: It is, rather, one of growth and dynamism—albeit a “progress” within the context of orthodoxy. That is his proper understanding of what the Christian life demands: one of interior transformation, constantly striving for perfection. As he explains the ideal:
Staying, remaining faithful implies an outgoing. Precisely if one remains in the Lord one goes out of oneself. Paradoxically . . . precisely if one is faithful one changes. One does not remain faithful, like the traditionalists or the fundamentalists, to the letter. Fidelity is always a change, a blossoming, a growth. The Lord brings about a change in those who are faithful to him. That is Catholic. St. Vincent of Lerins makes the comparison between the biologic development or the person who grows and the Tradition which, in handing on the depositum fidei [deposit of faith] from one age to another, grows and consolidates with the passage of time: “Ut annis scilicet consolidetur, dilatetur temporare, sublimetur aetate.”
The Catholic Church is profoundly blessed to have at its helm a man of immense integrity, charity, and humility, and someone keenly aware of the need to reform and purify the Church. St. Francis, one imagines, would be pleased.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.