Reader’s Guide – Day 15


Why so much attention given to a new pope, someone said on Twitter Friday. Why is that bigger news than someone being chosen to lead China, which is at least the second-largest economy in the world?


For church people of all sorts and for many other believers, the question is irrelevant, I suppose. News of a new pope raises questions about directions of the church, relations with other faith communities, the appointment of pastors across the world, the interpretation of church history. We want to know all we can about the man chosen to succeed Peter as vicar of Christ, his words, his deeds, in the past and at this moment. So far, there is a welter of details, some of them controversial, some of them confusing. Even some of the conclave details are being disclosed, most in unguarded asides by cardinals who are pleased with their choice, as evident, for example, in this Associated Press reconstruction of events and the New York Times version. My own newspaper, The Boston Globe, reports on Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s relief after the election of Francis, and there are several glimpses of the new pontiff there.

There are many small gestures. See this video from Catholic News Service, no words, just meetings with cardinals, but hands-on, ready to chat, embrace, to respond directly to the person in front of him.

There are so many little things he has done, the recourse to a simple automobile to cross the city to pray at the major basilica dedicated to Our Lady, a place where Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Christmas Mass; taking the bus with other cardinals; addressing them as brother cardinals, rather than lord cardinals. There was his message the day he was elected, asking fellow Argentine bishops to save the expense of traveling to Rome for his installation and to instead give the money to the poor. There was his invitation to Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, to attend the installation, with a warm message of regard for the Jewish people.

He has not yet visited Benedict XVI, though that might happen this weekend. On the day Francis was elected, he referred to himself and his predecessor as bishop and former bishop of Rome, so perhaps Francis has a solution to the knotty question of how we should think of having two popes at the Vatican.

And there is what he has not done, immediately confirming curial officials in office; see blogger Rocco Palmo’s Whispers in the Loggia.  It suggests, Palmo writes, that Francis’s turning up at the hostel where he stayed before the conclave to settle his bill “won’t be the biggest of his early surprises.”

Vatican officials all serve at his pleasure, so nothing would be lost by asking them to continue with the (piled-up) daily work. And yet so much attention was given to the problems in church administration that this delay may betoken his intention to shake up the curia and begin a reform many have sought, including Benedict. See the essay by Robert Mickens in the new issue of The Tablet: “A Roman curia that is not functioning well will have a crippling effect on the effectiveness of the Pope’s ministry and on the Vatican’s relationship with particular Churches throughout the world.” But tinkering with the curia is not enough, Mickens writes. “Francis I could provide a marvellous service to church unity if he consults widely with the world’s ­bishops and tries to find a fruitful way of restoring the more ancient and more ­evangelical model of synodal governance.”

For Italy’s newspaper L’Espresso, the respected Vaticanista Sandro Magister finds great hope in the election of Francis: “But he is also a man who knows how to govern. With firmness and against the tide. He is a Jesuit, the first to have become pope, and during the terrible 1970's, when the dictatorship was raging and some of his confrères were ready to embrace the rifle and apply the lessons of Marx, he energetically opposed the tendency as provincial of the Society of Jesus in Argentina. He has always carefully kept his distance from the Roman curia. It is certain that he will want it to be lean, clean, and loyal. He is a pastor of sound doctrine and of concrete realism. To the Argentines he has given much more than bread. He has urged them to pick the catechism back up again. That of the ten commandments and of the beatitudes. ‘This is the way of Jesus,’ he would say. And one who follows Jesus understands that ‘trampling the dignity of a woman, of a man, of a child, of an elderly person is a grave sin that cries out to heaven,’ and therefore decides to do it no more.”

See, too, Magister’s proposed agenda for the new pontificate, written before the election, but all the more pertinent; it is appended to the Web view of the article on Francis.

There is an interview by Maria Wiering in the Catholic Review of the Archdiocese of Baltimore with Agostina Turchetti, a young woman who grew up in Argentina and was confirmed by Archbishop Bergoglio. Her friends back home were sending her messages about their excitement that their archbishop had been elected and were calling him “The Pope of Small Gestures,” Turchetti said. Wiering wrote: “One of the shots showed him playing with kids at a children’s hospital. Another showed him washing a woman’s feet. These, Turchetti said, are the ‘small gestures’ her friends are talking about.”

The question of what happened in the Dirty War in Argentina is receiving much comment, and the Vatican press office has tried to slap down the negative critism as so much anticlericalism. See the New York Times report.

From what I have found, it is not possible to say exactly what happened when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the Jesuit provincial. It is clear that two Jesuit priests decided to continue their work in the slums, though Bergoglio had ordered all members of the Society out of such work during the height of the terror. Those two were arrested and abused by the ruthless military forces, when many others to the left of the rightwing regime were kidnapped and executed, with their children put up for adoption by rightwing families.

Writing for the Washington Post, Silvina Frydlewsky and Anthony Faiola have a report that also talks about more recent tensions between church and state in Argentina and Cardinal Bergoglio’s willingness to take on the regime. They write: “Now, as he enters the crisis-plagued halls of Vatican City, his years in Argentina show that when he sees fit, Pope Francis can be a combative leader unafraid to challenge entrenched authority.”

Writing for the Guardian in Britain, Margaret Hebblethwaite tells of meeting Cardinal Bergoglio several times since 2004 and of what she knows about the incident involving the two Jesuits. “They felt betrayed by Bergoglio because instead of endorsing their work and protecting them, he demanded they leave the barrio. When they refused, they had to leave the Jesuit order. When they were later ‘disappeared’ and tortured, it seemed to many that Bergoglio had been siding with the repression. It was the kind of complex situation that is capable of multiple interpretations, but it is far more likely Bergoglio was trying to save their lives.” The brief piece also goes on to tell of the cardinal’s compassionate dealing with the wife of Catholic bishop, Jerónimo Podestá, a “progressive” who even concelebrated Mass with his spouse, “the kind of thing that makes a Catholic cleric's hair stand on end,” Hebblethwaite writes. But Bergoglio wrote to  Podestá almost weekly, visited him when he was dying, and praised his good work after his death.

See the fairly comprehensive wrapup by Michael Warren of the Associated Press, writing from Buenos Aires. His assessment: “It's without dispute that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, like most other Argentines, failed to openly confront the 1976-1983 military junta while it was kidnapping and killing thousands of people in a ‘dirty war’ to eliminate leftist opponents. But the new pope's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that this was a failure of the Roman Catholic Church in general, and that it's unfair to label Bergoglio with the collective guilt that many Argentines of his generation still deal with.”

That there were some hard feelings raised by Father Bergoglio’s decisions as provincial is undeniable, however. See the Associated Press report from Germany of how one of the kidnapped Jesuits, Father Francisco Jalics, later reconciled with his former provincial. (The other is now dead.)

Writing for the online newspaper Huffington Post, Mandy Fridmann has an interview with an Argentine journalist Olga Wornat, who got to know Cardinal Bergoglio while working on a book about the church in Argentina. She asked him about his conduct during those dark times, Wornat said. “He denied it; he said it wasn’t true, and that in fact he used to meet with the members of the military junta to ask about the priests that had been kidnapped. It is a cloud that hovers over his history as a priest, one that is dark and contradictory. There are those who love him and those who hate him. There is no middle term with him.”

I hope these reading suggestions over the last three weeks have brought you some observations you might not have seen otherwise, that there have been some insights among the provocations. I have enjoyed working for you.

These articles are being archived on the America magazine website. You can also ask to be notified of all new postings in the In All Things blogs, including my own interventions. And you can get an e-mail with a link to the new posting by sending a note to


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Eugene Pagano
5 years 10 months ago
At the moment I would hesitate to judge the new Popee, certainly without more information. An example from the Anglican Church might help. (I have converted from Roman Catholicism to Episcopalianism.) Janani Luwum was an archbishop in Uganda who was murdered by Idi Amin. He is now recognized as an Anglican saint and commemorated at Westminster Abbey as a 20th century martyr. (Others so commemorated include Maximilian Kolbe and Oscar Romero.) However, he interceded with the Uganda police and Idi Amin privately, but was criticized for continuing to attend governmental functions: Had Amin not martyred Archbishop Luwum, he would probably have been subject to many of the same criticisms as the new Pope.
Bill Mazzella
5 years 10 months ago
At the Commonweal blog there is a rather thorough dialogue of this subject with Francis emerging in a favorable light. We have to be careful about making superficial judgments.
David Smith
5 years 10 months ago
I hope these reading suggestions over the last three weeks have brought you some observations you might not have seen otherwise, that there have been some insights among the provocations. I have enjoyed working for you.
Thank you very much. It's been an education and a pleasure reading them.
John Barbieri
5 years 10 months ago
Ambiguity is part of the human condition -- often a large, rather uncomfortable part. In the absence of proof, all of us would want the benefit of the doubt about how we conducted ourselves. One of the attractive things about Pope Francis is that he appears to be as human as the rest of us. For myself, I hope that he is not a saint -- he'll understand most of us a lot better that way!
Mary Celeste Brown
5 years 10 months ago
I just want to thank you for your work over the past few weeks. It has been very insightful to have a listing of what is being written in the media at this important time for the church. Bless you.
Reuben Espinosa
5 years 10 months ago
John Paul was almost fanatical in his opposition to the liberation theology movement and he scolded the priests publicly on his many visits to Latin America. Bergoglio had to walk the finest of lines as head of the Jesuits in Argentina at that time under the junta. That he was relieved of his position by the Jesuit order, and then later made a bishop and cardinal by John Paul II is interesting, to say the least. Although he is doctrinal conservative he condemns economic exploitation of the poor. He's also a pragmatist. I look for him to relax the rule of celibacy and to completely reorganize church government.


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