Sunday, March 17, 2013

Pope Francis: the "austerity pope"

The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Pope Francis has made many "firsts". The first pope from South America and the Southern Hemisphere, as well as the first Jesuit pope, are all significant in themselves, but these mould-breaking "firsts" are not even the most significant.
The cardinals deciding to "break the mould" had already known a lot about Bergoglio from the last conclave in 2005, as Bergoglio had come second that time around. Sources said at the time that Bergoglio insisted that other cardinals stop voting for him and transfer their votes to Benedict to ensure a smooth election; this sign of humility - a now-familiar trait of Pope Francis' personality - makes it clear why he was so widely respected amongst his peers.

Bergoglio had not been considered one of the papabile by observers this time around due to his age. The fact that he was also an "outsider" (as not part of the Curia or with any obvious links or experience in the Vatican bureaucracy) was considered another barrier; as was the fact that he was a Jesuit, a Christian order that had been mistrusted by previous Popes, most recently John Paul II.
As it happened, Vatican observers had been led up the garden path by the gossip that had been circulating about the conclave, and possibly by their own preconceptions: that there were no clear favourites, implying a more lengthy voting process than the last time. But the unique context that prompted the conclave being called in the first place - Benedict XVI's resignation - seems to have played a large part behind the cardinals' thinking, and this crucial factor was what many observers did not fully appreciate.

Benedict XVI's resignation may have officially been down to exhaustion from old age, but it's clear that the various scandals - abuse and corruption in the Catholic church - had taken their toll on Benedict's mental and physical state, to the extent that he felt the best thing to do was to pass on the baton to someone with a clearer mind and better health who could better deal with the huge task of reform. Benedict's last remarks when resigning as pope displayed a clear moral revulsion at what had unbeknownst happened to the Vatican under his watch; in the manner of his standing down, Benedict displayed more about his high moral character than at any other time during his papacy. Nothing marked the symbolism of Benedict XVI's papacy better than the manner of his resignation.
It is this - reform - which is what is most needed in the Catholic church, and it is this reason why the cardinals decided that the best person to carry out this task was Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. As Benedict XVI had resigned due to the scandals that had engulfed the Vatican, the cardinals realised that with the Catholic church facing a moral crisis unprecedented in modern times, they needed to be bold and bring in someone with the force of personality to bring about a decisive shift. As one priest said, what the Catholic church needed was "a miracle"; Jesus with a MBA, part manager, part radical reformer, with a Christian moral compass to match. With Bergoglio seemingly in the cardinals' mind from the last conclave, they chose a man who they thought would best fit the bill.

So, although Pope Francis has "broken the mould" in being the first Jesuit and South American pope, the main reason he was chosen was because of what he stood for, not just where he was from. As Pope Francis jokingly told the cardinals on the first day of his papacy, "May God forgive you for what you have done!".
Behind this joke is a clear point: Francis' morality is sincere and deeply-held. His years of pastoral work, his connection to helping the poor and disadvantaged had left a strong impression of what the true purpose of the Catholic church should be - morality, yes; but more importantly, improving social justice. The real meaning behind Francis' comment to the cardinals may be to make them understand that the pope is there as a moral icon. Taking the name of his namesake St Francis of Assisi, he means to demonstrate what Catholicism means to him personally, but also where he thinks the long-term future of the Catholic church lies; less in dogmatic points of morality, but in practical, on-the-street action. In the past when an archbishop, he strongly admonished those of his peers who he felt were enjoying too many of the comforts of their positions; as pope, cardinals and the Curia may well need to expect the same. Although Pope Francis joked to his cardinals, what he perhaps really meant was: I hope you realise what you have voted for.

For those in the Curia used to easy comfort, majesty and the splendour of Vatican life, Pope Francis may well be "the austerity pope" in more ways than one. In the coming weeks and months, the new pope may well take a very firm brush to what he sees as the perceived excesses, inefficiency and corruption in the Vatican.

What has caught the imagination of many Catholics and Vatican watchers, more than his simple personal manner of dress, is Pope Francis' easy-going and expressive personality. Francis comes across as a "man of the people" so easily because it seems to be his second nature. This has been honed through decades of pastoral service, selflessly dealing with the poor and the sick in Buenos Aires, making him almost a male comparison to Mother Teresa. In becoming pope, Francis already gives the impression of being close to sainthood; the charismatic and spontaneous personality more often seen in a populist leader married to a deep and sincere concern for social justice.

It is therefore by strange coincidence that the papacy has been endowed upon a man who has the qualities of a natural populist and icon of the poor, only a matter of days after the passing of another charismatic leader and social campaigner, Hugo Chavez. Chavez may have been a polarizing figure to the outside world and the moneyed classes of Venezuela, but he was a charismatic icon to the poor, whose concern for social justice he put into practice on the ground. In a strange act of poetry, it almost as though the torch of social justice held by a charismatic populist has passed from Hugo Chavez to the person of the pope himself.

Pope Francis' election to the papacy, as an outsider voted in with a mandate for vigorous reform, comes to Italy at the same as the rise of Beppe Grillo's "Five Star Movement" in reaction against the corruption of the Italian political class. A parallel comparison could be drawn from the events in the Vatican in the last month. In both cases, Italy and the Vatican, we see administration mired in scandal and corruption, its electors (cardinals in the case of the Vatican) choosing that it's time for a new approach led by an untarnished outsider, to save the broken system from itself.

The "pop star status" that Beppe Grillo has received since he became involved in the Italian elections, and even more since he became Italy's "kingmaker", is now mirrored by that of Pope Francis. In both cases, the near-hysteria of their respective "fanbase" is not just down to the protagonists' charisma and open personal style, but also to the fact that at times of moral and social crisis, people need to have someone they can believe in.
To an extent, over in the UK, the personal popularity of Nigel Farage and his UKIP is also a result of the moral and social crisis that has gripped the country since the beginning of the Financial Crisis. When "the system" is so clearly failing the people, it is often at these moments that individuals of special charisma and vision suddenly appear as if from nowhere. In reality, they may have been there for a long time; the people simply weren't listening very hard because it wasn't the right time.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio may well have had the opportunity to become pope in 2005, but the time was not right; Benedict was the natural choice, and Bergoglio saw no reason to change that. This time around, with the Catholic church facing multiple scandals and in need of a radical overhaul, the cardinals realised that this was Bergoglio's time.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

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