I had heard the name before, in a somewhat unusual circumstance. In 2008, Alice and I had gone to Buenos Aires for a ten-day vacation and had attended Mass at a church near our hotel on the periphery of the downtown. It was a typical working class parish, frequented by families and elderly. Throughout the service, people coming into or leaving the church would frequently touch a photograph that was attached to the wall. When I asked a parishioner who was in the picture, he replied: “Archbishop Bergoglio.” For some reason I remembered the name.
In the days immediately after the recent papal election, the media and much of the world has been fascinated by the figure of the new Pope who seemed to have come from nowhere to head the world’s largest faith community. I was therefore surprised to learn that the cardinal chosen to be Supreme Pontiff was precisely the same man whose name was spoken to me five years earlier.
There is something particularly unique in the flamboyance of the Argentine culture and its embodiment in Catholicism. Perhaps this explains the evangelistic fervor that so characterizes the new Pope.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio has been an outspoken proponent of life. On August 31, 2005 in honor of the Holy Protector of Pregnant Women, Saint Raymond Nonnatus, he articulated a broad and powerful message, opposing abortion, but advocating taking care of the young and the old.
“Jesus didn’t come to bring death,” Bergoglio declared, “but rather, the death of hatred, the death of fighting, the death of calumny, that is, killing with the tongue. Jesus did not come to bring death, the death that He suffered for defending life. Jesus came to bring life and to bring the abundant life, and he sends us out, carrying that life, but he tells us: “Care for it!” Because there are people who have what we are hearing about today, who aren’t involved in the Gospel: the culture of death. That is, life interests them insofar as it is useful, insofar as it has some kind of utility, and if not, it doesn’t interest them. And throughout the world, this weed of the culture of death has been planted.”
“I was reading a book a while back,” he went on “where this disturbing phrase was found: “In the world of today, the cheapest thing is life, what costs the least is life” — which is, therefore, the most disregarded thing, the most dispensable thing.”
“This elderly man, this elderly woman, are useless [some say]; let’s discard them, let’s throw them in the nursing home like we hang up the raincoat during summer, with three mothballs in the pocket, and let’s hang it in the nursing home because they’re now disposable, they’re useless. This child who is in the way is a bother to the family — let’s discard him and return him to the sender. That is what the culture of death preaches to us.”
“This child that I have at home, well, I don’t have time to educate him. Let him grow up like a weed in the field, and this other child who doesn’t have anything to eat, not even little shoes to go to school, and well, I’m very sorry, but you can’t expect me to save the world.”
“Care for life!”
“What a beautiful thing one sees — which I know! — that a grandfather, a grandmother, who perhaps can no longer speak, who is paralyzed, and the grandson or the son comes and takes their hand, and in silence cherishes them, nothing more. That is caring for life. When one sees people who take care so that this child can go to school, so that another doesn’t lack food, that is caring for life.”
Bergoglio has been particularly effective in sharing the Gospel with university students. Speaking to a group at St. Peter’s in 2005, he encouraged them “If you hear someone say something you don’t like, say so, but don’t be scandalized by life; the weapon of the hypocrite is to scandalize. Tell the truth, be transparent, and walk on the wide road, not on the path of hypocrisy. On this road you will meet the cross, pain and problems,” he said. “But your heart will be joyful. On the path of hypocrisy, on the contrary, you don’t know what your heart feels.”
The Argentine prelate has been unusually forthright in addressing clergy problems that went beyond the question of child abuse. Speaking in Buenos Aires this past September Bergoglio declared: “The worst damage that can happen to the Church is to fall into spiritual worldliness. This is… even worse than libertine popes of another era: that spiritual worldliness to merely do what is right, to be like everyone else, to enjoy oneself, to seek status.” Instead, he concluded, “we need to walk with the people of God, showing tenderness especially to sinners… knowing that God is in their midst.”
In more recent days Cardinal Bergoglio was equally direct in dealing with issues confronting church leadership. Addressing the assembly of cardinals on the eve of the Papal Conclave, Bergoglio repeated a similar theme: “”When the church does not emerge from itself to evangelize, it becomes self-referential and therefore becomes sick.” Bergoglio said, “The evils that, over time, occur in ecclesiastical institutions have their root…a kind of theological narcissism.” The Church he urged needs to “move outside itself to the existential peripheries, which include a focus on sin, suffering and injustice”
In closing his brief remarks to the cardinals, he reflected on the characteristics of the person that should be chosen as the next pope. The next Bishop of Rome, he suggested should be “a man who, from the contemplation of Jesus Christ and from worshiping Jesus Christ helps the Church out of itself to the outskirts of the existential, that helps Her to be a fruitful Mother, living “the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing.” In selecting Bergoglio, the cardinals clearly felt that they had found such a man.
We have a new Holy Father. Ultimately it is not the singer of the Good News, but the song that is important. But the Church Universal has a new voice nonetheless, and the song is fresh, and vigorous, as an Easter dawn.
Larry Mullaly — March 28, 2013