By Michael Novak
The new Pope is already famous for two funny jabs.
His first was in introducing himself to the world for the first time (my paraphrase of the Italian). “The cardinals meet in Rome to choose a new pope. This time they went to the end of the world to find me. So here I am.”
The next was at his final dinner with his colleagues at the conclave. It won him a huge outburst of laughter: “May God forgive you.”
But why did he choose the name Francis? No pope ever has, despite the fact that Francis of Assisi (1180-1225) has been for eight centuries, all around the world, the most beloved saint of all. People say Francis is the most Christlike of all the saints in his simplicity, humility, and poverty – and visible joy in the world around him. He is famous for his “Canticle of the Sun,” his joy in the singing of birds and the green of the trees, and the poor.
We know for sure that the new Pope will be, more than any in recent centuries, at least, identified with the poor. He certainly was as archbishop of Buenos Aires. There he took the bus to his office. He had a modest apartment to live in and cook for himself.
He refused to don all the traditional garments – the ermine vest, for instance – of a new pope, to come out to the world instead in a simple white cassock, with what appeared to be something like a wooden cross on a plain cord around his neck. On his first full day, the pope slipped out of the Vatican in a car to pray at a Roman church, a basilica (whose staff received a ten-minute warning of his arrival). No fuss, no fanfare. Then the car drove by the residence building for priests where he had been staying in Rome, to pick up his modest suitcases.
One almost expects him to wear Franciscan sandals as Pope. Well, not quite.
An American Cardinal who worked with him on an international commission of bishops said the world is about to be amazed at how brilliant this guy is. He has taught literature, psychology, and philosophy at the university level. We’ll test that soon enough
The point of being a bishop isn’t, of course, to be a bright academic – it is to preach Christ, and Christ crucified, that is, God’s choice of the poor, the suffering, the needy (and even the neediness of rich persons, like St. Francis as a young man), as his friends, those He wanted to have around him.
For myself, I am not sure what Pope Francis will take to be the best road for helping the poor out of poverty. Just more government subsidies? The socialist model? The Chavez model in Venezuela? Cuba? Or the path taken by China and India, moving more than a half-billion of their poor out of poverty in the last thirty years, and heading toward one billion? It is reassuring that he was a steady and firm resister to “liberation theology,” the theological argument for following the statist way. He aroused powerful enmity many of the most passionate Jesuit “public policy priests,” who preferred organizing “people’s churches” to achieve political-economic reforms of the statist sort.
It seems providential that just as Hugo Chavez died of cancer (poor man), the rhetorical and militarist leader of the leftist parties in eight or nine nations around him, a new champion of the poor has been raised up in Latin America, of a very different stripe.
It is also great to see, at last, a pope being chosen from “America” (as the church sees it, a whole hemisphere as one, not divided into North and South, and different from “the Old World”). For the first time in history, two North American cardinals (Dolan of New York, and O’Malley, the sandaled Franciscan of Boston) were being highly touted by the Italian press, and even promoted with much passion. America is moving front and center into the Church’s vision.
– Not everything American, of course; many around the world regard the television and entertainment culture of the United States as uncommonly ugly and disfiguring.
The point of the Catholic church around the world and in every age, as it was in pagan Rome in the beginning, is to be countercultural. You will not find the new pope thinking that because some American passions are new and “progressive” and “inevitable” in the minds of secular America, therefore, they represent the future. It is certain that any Catholic pope will see much in the air that belongs to a culture that is dying, as the Roman Empire died; indeed, as a “culture of death.”
It is especially satisfying to see Latin cultures moved front and center in the church. Catholics in Latin America now number forty percent of all the 1.2 billion Catholics on earth. Add in the Latinos of North America, and the proportion nudges close to fifty percent. A Latino pope seems very fitting.
The major growth of the Catholic church is now in Asia and Africa. The “evangelizing” (missionary) part of the church is now where the action is. This new Pope, this Francis, is certain to continue doing what he did in Argentina: call upon Catholics to think again. Do they really want to be Catholics? If they do, they better study what is demanded of them. The most vital part of that is to live the good news that God loves this human race and invites it into his friendship.
The God of the gospels does not want friendship through coercion. He offers it to free choice. And if so, serious choice, requiring a serious change of life as it did of Francis of Assisi. We may not each be called to the form of life that St. Francis chose. But the Lord does have something serious for each of us to do, and it is to be found by each of us hidden in our own hearts.
Expect Pope Francis to call for this. If so, watch out world!
Michael Novak is a co-founder of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and emeritus board member. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post website.