The Appeal of Francis

March 19, 2013 Topic: Religion Region: Vatican City

The Appeal of Francis

The selection of the Argentine was a smart political move.

It is of course futile to argue with divine wisdom, rendered in this case by a vote of at least two-thirds of 115 cardinals at a conclave to choose the successor to the Catholic Church’s Pope Benedict XVI. Still, this shouldn’t rule out a compliment on less lofty grounds: the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis, was a smart political move.

For starters, unlike his predecessor Bergoglio has had no hand in the Church’s recent child-abuse scandals. And given his limited experience in Rome, he’s untainted by the allegations of money laundering that have dogged Vatican banks.

Yet controversy arose almost immediately after the white smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel on March 13. Leftists in Argentina charge that Bergoglio colluded with the country’s reprehensible military junta by failing to protect two priests who fell victim to the “Dirty War.”

Rather, a close reading of the first-hand accounts indicate that Bergoglio steered a direct course through the region-wide churn of the early 1980s—tolerating the military while quietly working to get mothers access to their children, and sneaking at least one person out of the country disguised as a cleric—even as other priests across Latin America wound up as henchmen of the generals or, as was the case with Oscar Romero, preached socialist dogma packaged in the name of “liberation theology.”

More recently, Bergoglio’s voice became one of the few that couldn’t be drowned out as the Kirchner political machine carried Argentina from a broken democracy to a semi-authoritarian regime. In 2004, Bergoglio publicly asked then-President Nestor Kirchner to end the “strident statements.” For this and other rebukes, Kirchner called him “the leader of the opposition”—in retrospect, it was a sterling compliment.

Tending the Flock

Although it’s hard to fathom anyone stinting the tide of secularism washing across Europe, Pope Francis may well whip up a Catholic revival in Latin America. Catholics in Mexico, Colombia, Chile and elsewhere appear ecstatic about Latin America’s first pope. Perhaps they are also quietly relieved that he isn’t Brazilian. Closer to home, Bergoglio’s neighborhood soccer team, San Lorenzo, celebrated by fixing an impromptu picture of his Holiness on their jerseys; a more lasting redesign will feature a halo on the uniform.

In Africa, the ranks of the Catholic faithful are also likely to swell, if less for the pope’s home grown appeal than because of his conservative message. In 2010, Bergoglio strongly opposed Argentine president Cristina Fernandez’s move to legalize gay marriage, calling homosexuality “destructive…to the plan of God.” Such views currently motivate much of the Pentecostal fervor in Africa.

While these regions will be Catholicism’s major growth markets in the years ahead, Asia is also a promising new frontier. Within hours of Francis’s ascension to the throne of Saint Peter, Beijing sent a cable to the Holy See requesting acknowledgment of the People’s Republic—not Taiwan—as China’s lawful government. Evidently recognition by the Vatican, generally considered irrelevant to international relations, counts for something with the government of the world’s most populous nation.

Would it be possible for the Vatican to once again muster the leverage, last exercised in early years John Paul II’s papacy, to undermine a communist government? Certainly that’s a worry among party officials in Beijing. A day after Bergoglio was introduced to the world, CBS News reported “remarkable” crowds at a 6 a.m. Mass in Beijing. The church was showing TV footage of the new pope, despite efforts of state media to suppress the news.

Once the censors unpack the cultural meaning behind the namesake they will have even more reason to crackdown. That’s because the choice of name not only appears to be an olive branch to the Franciscan holy order, a periodic rival of the Jesuits, but it also doubles as a reminder of Francis Xavier (1506-1552). Xavier was the first Jesuit missionary, and is credited with converting an estimated 30,000 people across Asia.

On Sunday, Francis’s homily to a large crowd in Saint Peter’s Square focused on forgiveness and humility, emergent themes in his public statements. He twice left his cordoned-off security zone to greet worshippers. And yesterday Cristina Fernandez became the first head of state to visit Francis; over lunch she requested that he broker a resolution on the status of the Falkland Islands. Early signs point to a pontiff interested in outreach, whose sway may extend beyond the spiritual domain.

Sean Goforth is author of Axis of Unity: Venezuela, Iran and the Threat to America.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Presidency of the Nation of Argentina. CC BY-SA 2.0.