The Pope and the Public Eye

ROME – Barely a week into his papacy, the image of Pope Francis that is emerging is consistent with the world’s first view of him as pope last Wednesday, when he stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica with a simple white robe and wooden cross, bowed his head and asked the faithful to pray for him. Speaking to the media on Saturday, he said he had taken the name of Francis as a tribute to St. Francis of Assisi and a sign of his commitment to the poor.

Pope Francis delivered his first Mass as pontiff on Tuesday. Mustafa Hameed / Religio.

Pope Francis delivered his first Mass as pontiff on Tuesday. Mustafa Hameed / Religio.

And in his homily on Tuesday, during his installation as the 266th pontiff of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis pressed on with the themes of service and humility. Noting that it was the feast day of Joseph, the husband of Mary and the protector of both Mary and Jesus, he drew a parallel between his duty to the church and Joseph’s to his family. “How does Joseph exercise his role as protector?” Francis asked the congregation. “Discreetly, humbly, silently.”

It is clear that Francis takes his obligation to the poor with that sense of understatement and humility—indeed, “humility” has been the word most bandied about by journalists and the faithful alike since his election last week. At his first meeting with the media as pope on Saturday, Francis called for “a poor church, for the poor.” The simplicity with which he lived his life as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, has already become the stuff of popular legend among enthusiastic Catholics. He eschewed the limousine and servants entitled to him in favor of a bicycle and cooking his own meals. But beyond that tone of simplicity, Francis himself inaugurates a number of firsts for the papacy.

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Italian immigrants in 1936, Francis is the first pope from the southern hemisphere and the first non-European pope in modern times (popes from the Middle East and North Africa were not uncommon in the early centuries of Christianity). As a young man, he had part of a lung removed after falling ill with severe pneumonia, and it was only after this that he entered the Jesuit order.

Although he is the first Jesuit in history to become pope, Francis’ relationship with the Jesuit community is not a particularly warm one. He did not typically stay at the Jesuit residences during his trips to Rome in the past, and even his choice of name, Francis, may raise questions in that community: it was a Franciscan pope, Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuits in the 1700s.

Indeed, his past interactions with fellow Jesuits is at the heart of the greatest controversy around his election. Questions have been raised about Francis’ involvement in the disappearance of two Jesuit priests during Argentina’s Dirty War in 1976. Human rights advocates in the past have accused Francis, then Bergoglio, of cooperating with the country’s military dictatorship to arrest the dissident priests.

For his part, Pope Francis has been very clear about the choice of his name, telling the media that as soon as the ballots made it apparent that he would become pope, “Right away, with regard to the poor, I thought of St. Francis of Assisi.”

St. Francis of Assisi was renowned, among other things, for passing up material wealth to serve the poor and the sick. The parallels the name choice invites for Pope Francis’ ministry in Buenos Aires to the founder of the Franciscan order are numerous: an episode when Bergoglio washed and kissed the feet of a man suffering from AIDS became an instant folk legend when he was announced as Pope.

Today, riding through St. Peter’s in an open-roofed popemobile—consistent with the tone he has continued to set of openness and approachability in contrast to his predecessor, the rather academic, retiring Benedict—Francis stopped the vehicle to approach and bless a disabled man in the crowds.

So far, Francis has been defined by those folk legends and an overwhelming perception as a modest servant of God. His simple white robes have been a study in contrast to the more conspicuous red-and-gold cloaks of his predecessors at their inaugurations, and many Catholics see his personal manner as a welcome change from Benedict’s perceived reticence. Now, as Francis takes the reins of the church and the leadership of the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, the faithful will continue to watch him reveal himself in practice rather than in perception.

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One Response to “The Pope and the Public Eye”

  1. Kimberly Winston
    March 20, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

    This is the first I’ve seen this reported – EXCELLENT!
    Although he is the first Jesuit in history to become pope, Francis’ relationship with the Jesuit community is not a particularly warm one. He did not typically stay at the Jesuit residences during his trips to Rome in the past, and even his choice of name, Francis, may raise questions in that community: it was a Franciscan pope, Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuits in the 1700s.

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