By Sue Leonard.
Published in Reality Magazine, May, 2013
When Pope Benedict XV1 resigned, it caused a shock throughout the world. And as the news sunk in, there was much speculation as to who his successor would be. There were many favourites; but when, on 13th March, the Papal Conclave announced the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th Pope, many people were unsure, exactly, who he was.
The Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who’d worked as a chemical engineer before becoming a priest, Bergoglio is the first Jesuit Pope; the first Pope from the Americas, and the first from the Southern Hemisphere. Of Italian descent, he’s also the first to have chosen the papal name Francis.
A week or so after his election, we asked prominent Catholics what their first impressions of Pope Francis were. Most expressed surprise at his election, but Fr Paddy Byrne, a priest in Kildare and Leighlinn knew exactly who he was.
“I had researched him beforehand, and knew he had received quite a few votes in the previous conclave,” he says. “He was mentioned in one of the papers as one of six possible candidates, and I held a hope that he might be chosen.
“My first impression was ‘wow!’ I couldn’t believe it when his name was read out, and particularly when he chose the name Francis. And on the balcony he wasn’t wearing the robe that indicates authority. I felt straight away that that was good. I was celebrating the nine week novena at the time. I put it up on the webcam, and spoke to the people about who he was. There was a palpable sense of joy.”
Known in Argentina for his humility, his concern for the poor, and his commitment to build bridges, Pope Francis, in his first weeks, has shown he intends to bring these traits to the papacy.
Fr Paddy is delighted at his first actions as Pope; like his decision to attend a service in a prison on Holy Thursday and wash the feet of the young offenders.
“I grew up with Pope John Paul 11. I love him, but when Francis became Pope, I immediately felt a great love for him. I do, actually, love him.”
Was he surprised at the decision?
“I think it was a bold one. And one which replicates gospel values. The conclave obviously listened to the needs of the people. I’m not naive enough to think this will bring revolution, but every generation is a continent for the revolution of the gospel today, and I hope these actions which are intrinsic to gospel values, that are simple and yet reflective, that that will be translated into my life, and will inspire me as a priest, and make me bold in my outreach.”
The Poet, John F. Deane is pleased, too. Having lost his faith in Rome with Pope Benedict, he feels new hope. His comments, although brief, are heartfelt.
“From grandeur to simplicity, from lording it over us, to be a servant. Closer to the earth, closer to reality, and from there who knows? There is hope, at last. There is a sign, in Pope Francis, that the spirit of truth is working.”
Claire Deane, a teacher from Belfast, had little hope that the new Pope would be one she could happily follow.
“I thought the cardinals would pick someone in the same mould as Pope Benedict,” she says. “I was wrong. I’m glad I was wrong.
“Pope Francis feels like a breath of fresh air. And the irony is that he hasn’t done anything global or mega. It’s all small gestures, but the gestures are adding up to a Pope who seems to have a lot of potential. He has the human touch, and he’s blurring the edges, for me, between the Vatican and the rest of the world. I get a picture of a nice, charismatic, humble man.”
In the past, Claire felt that the Pope didn’t affect her own life. With Pope Francis, that has changed.
“Even in the short time he’s been around, Pope Francis has made me feel better about being a Catholic. I’m more proud of the long history of my religion.
“During Pope Benedict’s reign, you were almost apologetic for remaining a Catholic. People were saying to you, ‘Catholicism is a scandal,’ and from Rome, all the emphasis was on clericalism, and hounding people across the world who said too much, or didn’t say enough.
“I found myself, almost, apologising for the Catholic tradition. Now Catholicism is something to be proud of again. Other Catholics I’ve spoken to feel the same as me. It’s more than positive; it’s hopeful. We all feel there is more to come from this man.”
When Pope Francis announced he’d be saying Holy Thursday Mass in a prison, Claire noticed a lot of comments on Facebook.
“People were sharing the news. I’ve never noticed people posting on positive news about the church before. Everyone seems hopeful.”
Unaware of who he was, even though she’d researched likely candidates through the BBC, Claire was almost immediately reassured.
“When he came out, first, he looked a little austere. He was breathing heavily. I think he was composing himself. But the moment he spoke, I felt he could be good. My worry evaporated.”
Pope Francis, though, isn’t as young as some predicted the new Pope would be. Is that a problem?
“The reality, with the age of the college of cardinals was that he was going to be old,” she says. “If he only remains Pope for three years, and his papacy continues in the vein, he could make a lot of difference. By focusing on social issues, the hidden jewel of Catholicism, he has already moved the emphasis of the church.”
Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal, was also surprised, though pleased, at Pope Francis’s election.
“As all the cardinals were appointed by Pope John Paul 11 or Pope Benedict XV1, I thought there was little elbow room for the Holy Spirit. So it seems that something very interesting and unusual has happened.
“I like the three firsts,” he says. “The first Francis, the first Jesuit and the first South American. All that is very new and exciting.”
Remarkable though the election was, the Abbot thinks the resignation of Pope Benedict was more dramatic still.
“In one fell swoop Pope Benedict removed the whole mythology that surrounds the Pope,” he says. “For the past 100 years, the cult of the person of the Pope has been cultivated. It started with Pius 1X, who presented himself as a lone suffering pastor in the war against modernity, and Pope John Paul 11 accentuated the mega star image.
“When Ronald Reagan was elected president of the USA, Orson Welles was asked what he thought of the head of the most important country in the world being an actor. He replied, ‘Well, it seems to be working in the Vatican.’ With that resignation, that cult of Pope as champion has gone.”
The Abbot wasn’t in the least surprised when Pope Benedict resigned.
“I was certain he would, because of what he said and because of his experience. He was in charge when John Paul was incapable of running the church, or anything else. He had to carry the can. He wrote things saying the Pope should retire if he became incapable, and he was probably the only person who could have carried it out. He was sufficiently intelligent and well read. I didn’t admire Pope Benedict, but I admired him for that. It was a very spiritual gesture.
What would he like to see Pope Francis do?
“He must confront the Curia. With his parents both being Italians, he was probably considered the next best thing, but my impression is that he won’t be an easy pushover.
“We all know, from programmes like, ‘Yes, Prime Minister,’ that any organisation that runs 1.2 billion people has to have a civil service to keep the machinery going. Popes will come and Popes will go, and the Curia will regard themselves as going on forever. Can Pope Francis clean out that bureaucracy?
“Pope Francis has fuelled our hope, when we have been in the depths of despair. We’re battening onto all this possibility we’re being presented with. But it’s got to the point of hysteria,” he warns.
“I’m certain there will be huge disappointment in the near future. Pope Francis is not going to, nor does he want to, change many of the things people are expecting him to change. This man is presently a star, but people are going to find that he is much more ordinary than they imagined.”
This last sentiment is one shared by Catherine Green, a teacher.
“In seeing Pope Francis as a great healer and reformer, we may try to re-form him into another Messiah,” she says. “If we do that, we’ll be setting him tasks which can only lead to disappointment and disillusion. Sadly, Calvary inevitably follows on Palm Sunday.”
When Catherine first heard the name, Bergoglio, it didn’t ring any bells. But the moment she set eyes on Pope Francis, she recognised him from Pope Benedict’s election.
“He made an impression on me back then, because his commitment to the poor was highlighted,” she says.
She was pleased with his choice of name. And pleased with the humble way he spoke to the crowds.
“His down to approach elicited roars of affectionate approval,” she says. “And in the days leading up to his installation, he again manifested a lack of stuffiness. He was aware of the people's need and desire to be physically close to their Pope, and his need matched theirs.
“I imagine his approach might give Security a headache, but his casual disregard for his own safety underlines that we are all in God's hands, bullet-proof screens or not. And a true shepherd needs to be among his sheep; as he was among the poor of Buenos Aires.”
Catherine loves the way he has set aside the almost medieval trappings of undue ceremoniousness and costly apparel.
“Perhaps the Church will be spiritually richer for this,” she says. “And when he visited Benedict, he insisted they pray together ‘as brothers.’ That, I thought, was wonderful. He is planning to celebrate the Mass of the Lord's Supper at a juvenile detention Centre; can there be a stronger sign that the young disadvantaged on the fringes of society are at the centre of this Pope's heart, as they would be at Christ's?”
Catherine feels an end has come to the constant reprimanding, and interrogating of priestly theologians, philosophers, and simple pastors.
“I can’t imagine him ruling in the unjust and uncharitable way that has pertained until now,” she says. “ Nor can I imagine him using wounding and excluding language against our homosexual brothers and sisters.
“And as for the thorny issue of celibacy; I hope he will, at least open up the subject for honest discussion, with access to the Eucharist as its foundation. I think we’ll see married priests before we’ll see women-priests.
“I pray that this Pope will continue as he has started, supported by the affection and prayers of God's people. The Holy Spirit has chosen well, but has his work cut out for him. We travel hopefully.”
The Rev Steven Neil, Church of Ireland Rector in Cloughjordan, County Tipperary, loves Pope Francis’s simplicity.
“I like the fact that he didn’t seem pompous at the ceremony,” he says. “My first thought, when I saw him on the balcony, was that he was a warm person. He reminded me of Pope John Paul 1. I thought he had a nice smile.”
All this came as a huge relief.
“I was surprised,” he admits. “Particularly when the Curia had made their decision so quickly. I had expected someone more in the mould of his predecessor. It renewed my faith in the Holy Spirit.”
Rev Neil is cautious though.
“He is conservative; he is a Jesuit, and he is not going to change any major doctrines overnight, but he does seem more approachable than Pope Benedict. I think he will be prepared to converse.
“My particular interest, though, is ecumenical, and on this we’re getting mixed messages from him. On one hand he seems in favour of welcoming other churches, but it’s been brought to my attention that he referred to non Roman Catholic churches of the West as Ecclesiastical communities. That was a word brought to the fore by Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, and I’d hoped for a different stance from Pope Francis.
“I like his concern for the marginalised, and, though there is controversy to come, on the issues of married and women priests, I think Pope Francis’s personality will keep people on his side.
“He may be a caretaker Pope, but I think he will change the whole paraphernalia of the papacy. He will put his own stamp on things. I am hopeful. His humanity and humility is wonderful, and is something the church needs. All the churches suffer when part of the institution is suffering, and this is a Pope who will go out to the margins. That is a message for all our churches. His witness, I believe, will encourage and revitalise not just the Roman Catholic church, but all Christianity.”
The writer, broadcaster and journalist Mary Kenny has the issue of celibacy on her mind, too.
“I think the most urgent reform that Pope Francis could usher in, is to ordain more married men,” she says. “He should do so as soon as possible, and he should be proactive about it.
“This doesn't mean abolishing the celibacy tradition overnight,” she stresses. “After all, many priests have adhered faithfully to their vows in this matter, and that should be respected . But ordaining married men, and positively recruiting them, would be a dynamically positive step, which wouldn't involve any complicated change of church doctrine. I feel sure it would be widely welcomed.”
What, so far, does she make of our new Pope?
“He really seems to be a breath of fresh air,” she says, “and I think people have been immensely cheered by the simple way he has approached the pontificate - and in such a genuine Christian spirit. I have great hopes.”
Ger Gleeson, a lay Catholic living in Limerick, is cautiously optimistic.
“I know nothing about him, but I like the fact he has dealt with people. The last Pope was too tied up in theology. Pope Francis knows about the theology of the church, but he has already shown that he is a man of the people. And he’s asking Bishops to follow his lead; he’s asking them to live in more humble surroundings.
“There are a lot of issues in the Church. I hope Pope Francis will make major progress on these in the short, rather than the long term. I hope he will find a place for gay and lesbian people in the church, and I hope he will welcome the divorced and separated. Marriages often end for a good reason. If a women, responsible for children meets another man who will care for those children, is that wrong? I don’t see that, yet she cannot approach the table of God. That, I deplore.”
Gleeson would like to see more radical reforms too.
“I’d like to see the Curia disbanded immediately,” he says, “and I want lay people to be part of a new committee. And I want to see women on that committee. Women in the church need to be given equal rights with men.”
AT 78, does he see Pope Francis as a stop gap Pope?
“Maybe, but he’s being seen as a man to clear up the mess. And whether it’s a stop gap of five or six years or longer, who knows? Pope John was seen as a stop gap Pope, and he had the world in his hands after a few years. I want the same to happen to this man. I want it for the good of the Church, no for the good of Cardinals, or the Curia, or anyone else.”
© Sue Leonard. 2013.