Everyone who is anyone from the political and religious world arrived in Rome this week to take part in a mass to coronate the Catholic Church’s newest leader, Pope Francis. At its pinnacle, cardinals and bishops in full regalia prayed in Latin while bells rang over St. Peter’s Basilica. It was one of the world’s oldest institutions doing millennium-old pageantry for its 265th head.
The pageantry included receiving heads of state a day before the official mass. Over lunch, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner asked the new pope to be a mediator on Argentina’s claim over the Falkland Islands. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe arrived, flouting an international travel ban that does not include the Vatican, whereas China sent no delegation because Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou was present. Some 132 delegations were on hand for the Vatican’s main event.
There was pageantry indeed, but not for long. The new leader, Pope Francis, is a humble man who will no doubt struggle to change the ways of church executives whose mission is to care for the poor, pray for the sick and aid parishioners—while sometimes living in splendor replete with limousines, chefs, valets, and personal assistants.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, has pledged a “Poor Church for the Poor.” He is of the Jesuit order of the church founded by St. Francis of Assisi, whose name he took for the papacy. For the uninitiated, Assisi lived in the thirteenth century, preaching a gospel of relief for the poor, and expressing God’s disdain for greedy men who failed to help those in need. This is the context under which the new pope will begin to work inside the church.
As a priest and archbishop in Argentina, Pope Francis spent a great deal of time with the poor, prostitutes and the afflicted. He turned down a car, driver and chef after becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires, waived the mansion to live in an apartment and either walked or took public transportation everywhere he went. He is also known for his solidarity with AIDS victims.
The new pope is not without controversy, however. He opposes gay marriage and abortion and was exceptionally vocal on these issues, prompting the Kirchners to stop attending his Sunday mass in Buenos Aires. He is also blamed by many for not doing enough during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship that brought more than 25,000 deaths and disappearances.
Francis has plenty of work ahead of him and his church of 1.2 billion followers. Sex scandals and financial troubles are two of the top issues. None compare, however, to the main issue: fewer people following the Catholic Church, and fewer becoming priests and nuns to replenish the ranks.
The church remains a rigid institution, and understandably so, but it will need to be more flexible with its policies if it wishes to grow. For instance, upwards of 80 percent of its followers use contraceptives, knowing the church forbids the practice, and many see the church’s non-acceptance of gays as outdated and unacceptable. Last, most everyone agrees women should be allowed leadership roles inside the church.
While in waiting last week, Francis was offered a red cape to accompany his papal attire in what would be his first appearance before millions of Catholics. The Pope declined, telling the papal master of ceremonies, “You wear it, Monsignor. Carnival time is over”.
I hope that this simplicity marks Pope Francis’s time in the Vatican, inspiring him to take a moderate tone on important issues. In the end, it is what Assisi would have done to be inclusive and ensure that no one felt neglected or put off by those who truly want to help.