Pope Francis I is presenting himself to the world as a church leader who values austerity and actions above words. Cultural historian Mathilde van Dijk of the University of Groningen expects the Argentinian pope to concentrate on social justice and sort out once and for all the child abuse scandals recently afflicting the Catholic Church. His hardest challenge will be reforming the Church administration, the Roman Curia.
Unlike previous popes, Francis I appeared on the balcony after his election with just a simple iron cross and without an extravagant red cloak. For Van Dijk, this was a positive start. ‘He wants to be a modest leader. After the simple “Buona sera fratelli e sorelle” and his call to pray for Benedictus and all other people, I thought: this might turn out to be interesting.’ Van Dijk thinks that Francis’s austerity is a strong point. ‘His lifestyle shines through his words. This is a man who lived in a small flat for years, cooked his own food and took the bus to work every day. That creates credibility, while at the same time there’s no doubt that he’s an intellectual.’
However, the world should not forget that the new pope was elected cardinal by his illustrious predecessor John Paul II. ‘John Paul II significantly expanded the College of Cardinals, but only with conservatives. Bergoglio, for example, supports the Church’s hardline stance against single-sex marriage. He once called it “a destructive pretension against God’s plan”.’ Just like John Paul II, Francis I is a charismatic leader, although Van Dijk sees a different kind of charisma. ‘John Paul II impressed you as a strong man. Bergoglio has a different type of charisma, that of a modest man who really thinks that the Church should return to following the example of Christ.’
One negative point is perhaps that the Argentine Bergoglio’s career took off under the Videla regime. Van Dijk: ‘He never spoke out against the regime in public. There are stories that he mediated on behalf of prisoners behind the scenes. If that is true, Bergoglio played the typical role of priests in Latin America - mediators between the elite and the poor. Unlike Liberation theology, that role leaves the existing authority relationships intact.’
During his first press conference, the Pope explained that he had been inspired by the thirteenth-century Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, when choosing his name. St Francis was an exponent of solidarity with the poor in word and deed. ‘Bergoglio has visited AIDS patients in hospitals, washed their feet and kissed them. St Francis did the same with the pariahs of his time, the lepers.’ Van Dijk sees a pope who wants to be a defender of the poor and an opponent of child abuse and child labour. ‘He once called that demographic terrorism.’
St Francis may not be the only source of inspiration for the Pope - Bergoglio is a Jesuit. The Society of Jesus was founded as an intellectual order. Evangelization was its main duty, both within Europe, against the Protestants, and elsewhere. ‘In that sense you can make a link with another Francis, a Spanish missionary from the sixteenth century, the Jesuit Francis Xavier.’ This inherent militancy is the perfect reaction to current developments that threaten the Catholic Church, according to Van Dijk. ‘The scandals in Europe have led to many people deregistering as believers. That is a significant step further than just not going to church. And in Latin America the Church is facing strong competition from Protestant movements such as Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism.’
The Pope is facing major challenges, but he might just be the right man in the right place. ‘If his health continues to be good, he could really make a difference’, says Van Dijk. The necessary reforms of the Church organization itself in Vatican City, a vexed issue that has been on the agenda for years, may be a different matter, however. ‘Bergoglio is an experienced archbiship, used to operating in difficult situations. On the other hand, he has no experience with the power games of the Curia. That’s going to be a tough challenge.’
Mathilde van Dijk is lecturer in the cultural history of Christianity at the University of Groningen.
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