Southern pope a voice for the silent majority

2013-03-18 00:00

NO one could be more surprised at the choice of a 76-year-old Jesuit Pope than the Jesuit penning this piece. Although Jesuits have sometimes been lampooned as unthinking and unfeeling automata in the papal service (“the horns of the Papal bull” or “the Pope’s SAS”) and even though Jesuits do take a vow of obedience to accept the missions mandated by the pontiff, the historic facts show that the relationship between Jesuits and Pope has often been a rocky one.

In the 18th century, as dramatised by Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro in the film The Mission, Pope Clement XIV went as far as suppressing the Jesuit order. It was re-established, much chastened, some 40 years later. More recently, in 1981, John Paul II suspended our leadership process while he took a close and suspicious look at what we were doing and saying. It was this tricky history that gave rise to the received wisdom that there would never be a Jesuit pope.

So what does this electrifying election mean? Given that a powerful preoccupation among the cardinal electors was an inward-looking one, the problems with the central administration of the church — the Roman Curia — this election shows an openness and a breadth of vision wholly appropriate to what the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner referred to as a “world church”.

This, after all, is the first pope born south of the equator or even south of the tropic of Cancer. In this election, the Catholic church has affirmed, in a concrete and practical way, its true universality. It is also a timely acknowledgement that the demographic centre of gravity of Christianity has shifted from Europe to the global south. Two thirds of Catholics now live in Africa, Asia and South America and the gap is growing rapidly. Thanks to the first non-European Pope for over 1 000 years, Catholics and Christians from Indonesia, through the Philippines, India, Africa, and of course Latin America, will now feel that they have a voice that speaks for them and their concerns. And the name he has chosen — Francis — is a clear indication that he will indeed strive to be a voice for the voiceless and the vulnerable of the Earth.

Francis of Assisi, a figure of universal appeal if ever there was one, relinquished a life of comfort and security for one lived close to the poor in an almost literal imitation of Jesus of Nazareth. Were he alive today, he would certainly want to remind us that there are up to a billion people suffering from chronic hunger, and that as a result, thousands of children die each day. And yet a fraction of the world’s arms’ budgets could solve this. His love of creation, from “Mother Earth” to “Brother Wolf”, makes him a “natural” patron saint of the environment.

St Francis personally intervened in the Crusades, courageously going against the official crusading church policy, and seeking to foster reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. In the process, he became a friend of Malek-al-Kamil, a nephew of Saladin the Great. This memory of early Franciscan-inspired Christian-Muslim dialogue lives on today. Here in South Africa, the Franciscans run the Damietta Peace Initiative for nonviolence, reconciliation and respect for creation, and it takes its name from the town of Damietta in Egypt where Francis and his companions first made contact with Malek-al-Kamil. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”, Francis prayed, and he would therefore want to urge 21st-century people to work much harder for peace and reconciliation, especially in war-ravaged Africa. This is what the Pope is saying to us in the selection of this most eloquent of names.

There are over a billion Roman Catholics in the world today, but the wide media interest in this conclave serves to underline that the popes of the 21st century have significance beyond the denominational boundaries of Catholicism. Who the Pope is and where he comes from interests and affects not just Catholics, but also other Christians and adherents of other faiths. And insofar as this universal figure has a social and political influence in the modern world, even people of no religious belief will still have an opinion about him.

In choosing Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, the cardinals sought to tick as many of the “papal boxes” as possible. One would be adherence to traditional church teaching and here he has not endeared himself to the Argentine government on the issue of gay marriage, for example. However, the first box they would have wanted to tick, would be his moral and spiritual integrity. After all, the most terrifying title the Pope has to accept is The Vicar of Christ, the one who stands in the place of Christ on behalf of the church on Earth. We had an early glimpse of his spiritual calibre as he bowed his head and humbly asked the people of Rome for their prayers before he blessed them. By all accounts, such gestures are not without substance: they are the way he is, a simple, holy and humble pastor, a bishop who moved out of the episcopal palace into a flat and who prefers to travel to work by bus.

For Christian believers, the election of Pope Francis is a vivid sign of the times, and what God seems to me to be saying through it is: “It’s the Gospel, stupid!”


• Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit priest teaching theology and English at St Francis Xavier Seminary in Cape Town.

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