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Renewing our hope in the pope

Gary Caruso | Friday, March 22, 2013

The entire Catholic Church has pulsated an electric excitement about Jorge Mario Bergoglio since he was elected Pope Francis. Not since the 1978 installation of the first John Paul who only served for a month have Catholics worldwide – both from the progressive as well as the fundamentally orthodox wings of the Church – looked to the pontiff with such expectation and universal hope. Certainly Francis’ predecessors were respected and admired, but his humility and genuinely simplistic lifestyle somehow are uniting competing factions within the church more so than ever in the post-World War II era.
In Washington, D.C. at my parish last Sunday, those preparing for mass in the Cathedral of St. Matthew’s sacristy buzzed about reports of how our Archbishop, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, was identified as the principal “Pope Maker” of this conclave by sources within the Vatican. According to journalist Paolo Rodari of La Repubblica newspaper, Wuerl convinced the North American cardinals to unite behind Bergoglio instead of two early favorites: the Italian Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Scola and Brazilian Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Odilo Scherer. That unified new world voting block pushed Bergoglio’s vote majority to a higher margin than the 2005 odds-on favorite margin of Pope Benedict XVI.
This year, Church observers should have placed more stock in the Argentine, more seriously considering Bergoglio’s runner-up status from 2005, rather than focusing on the perceived public affairs strengths of Scola and Scherer. Church leaders recognized that a Vatican outsider needed to send the Church into a new direction. One needs to merely watch the manner in which Pope Francis entered and left his inaugural mass to witness how he exudes charisma like the Holy Spirit on steroids. Observers welled with tears as the pontiff briefly stopped to greet a group of disabled persons along the barrier fence. Anyone watching knows that we are headed in a new direction under Francis as evidenced by the pure exuberant joy beaming from the grotesquely disfigured face of a disabled man whom the pope gently kissed on his forehead.
Ironically, progressives who want the Vatican to be more inclusive using modern-day thinking are as eager to support this pope as conservatives who prefer standing firm on status quo dogma which currently forces nonconformists to leave. Each camp pins their hopes on Bergoglio’s past. For example, as cardinal, Bergoglio worked tirelessly to bridge what he called the “estrangement with the Orthodox churches.” As a result and for the first time in nearly a thousand years, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarch, attended the new pope’s installation. Signs of such mutual respect and friendship warms hopes that the pope will eventually institute one policy regarding the marriage of priests which only the Orthodox permit.
Hard-line conservative Catholics mistakenly overlook the nuisances of the new pope’s stand on various conflicting issues. Initially, Bergoglio approaches conflicting issues with an eye on serving mankind, not unnecessarily restricting others. Conservatives need to study the pope’s initial stand regarding same-sex marriage before they mistakenly believe that all of their core stances align with the pope’s history. Bergoglio opposed same-sex marriage in Argentina only after the government banned civil unions as an alternative. Bergoglio chastised priests who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. His Jesuit philosophy remains the antithesis to the thoughts of so many so-called “traditional” Catholics. He holds that to be pro-life is to also oppose capital punishment, an inconvenience for many American Catholic politicians who support babies, but execute convicts. He does not withhold communion as a punishment of elected Catholic officials who represent their constituents’ needs rather than their Church’s proclamations.
My personal hope is that our pope continues to invite rather than limit, remains clear-eyed about the difficulties facing our church while never losing sight of the vision St. Francis of Assisi held for his neighbors. May he use his authority to undo errors of the past. Undoubtedly, the pope’s love of service will allow him to reform the Vatican’s problems. May he also remain open-minded to change matters of discipline and tradition that are not matters of faith. Many who stray from the church will “come home” once the Vatican seems more in touch with the flock like the pope’s namesake was in the Twelfth Century.
Nature and symbolism can be the great predictors of the future. With St. Francis as his guide, Pope Francis should affect Catholics as profoundly as John XXIII did more than a half-century ago. It seems that such ominous foretelling lies within the Assisi monastery walls. Far from open doors and windows, stands a statue of St. Francis holding his hands cupped at his chest. Birds built a nest within his palms as though to validate their unity with him during his days on earth. Since our modern-day Francis lives by the same attributes as the saint, we can rejoice that the servant of God is truly amongst us.

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.