Almost two months ago Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected by his fellow cardinals to serve as the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church. In his brief tenure Pope Francis has shown the world that he intends to take this worldwide church in a different direction, returning it to the roots of compassionate mission. He has conducted himself with a greater degree of humility, directed his attention more to the poor and imprisoned and has sent strong signals that he wants the church to live in solidarity with those who suffer.
Reporters Stacy Meichtry and Alessandra Galloni of The Wall Street Journal reported in the April 13-14, 2013 issue the “inside story” of Cardinal Bergoglio’s election. These reporters claim that this dark horse rose to the forefront after one four minute speech Bergoglio gave to the elective body on March 7, 2013.
Whereas many other aspiring cardinals apparently spoke in flowery church jargon about the indistinct and imprecise need to evangelize the world and clean up the church’s financial house, the Argentinean leader made it clear that the church cannot continue to be “self-referential,” for such inward focus leads to the church believing it produces its own light. Bergoglio identified one of the key dangers for any church, Protestant or Catholic: the church absorbed in institutional maintenance, self-care and shoring up the organization for the sake of institutional preservation can develop an unbecoming swagger.
Bergoglio told the cardinals that the church needed to return to involving itself in acts of compassion and justice. He challenged his church to address the “periferia”, an Italian word which can mean “the edge”. The WSJ reporters wrote that “periferia” for Italians — and most Europeans — also represents the outer edges of their cities … the places where the abandoned and ignored immigrants, blue collar class and the poor live. In the United States the periphery of our cities are “suburbs” where the middle class and wealthy flee the poverty of the inner city. Not so in Europe, where the poor are hidden far away from the glitz and glitter of the historic center of long-established European cities.
His address struck a responsive chord. One cardinal said, “He’s saying that Jesus himself brought us to this world to be poor … to not have this excessive consumerism, this great difference between the rich and the poor.”
And so they elected him and perhaps were not surprised when their new pontiff selected Francis as his name, naming and identifying his leadership with the saint who is known for simplicity and voluntary poverty.
The Catholic Church faces many challenges, but the 76-year-old Pope Francis seems to be more than up to the task. It is too early to tell how Pope Francis will reform some of the entrenched bureaucracy of his church, but he is certainly taking very positive steps from the outset. May every church address and engage those on the periphery.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.