A Pope with the common touch


A Pope with the common touch

You might have met him on the bus in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital – this leader of the city’s huge Catholic population, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio – now Pope Francis

Thursday, 21 March 2013
9:00 AM GMT

You might have met him on the bus in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital – this leader of the city’s huge Catholic population, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio – now Pope Francis. You might have run into him in the street as he returned to his self-catering apartment; you might even have spotted him in the supermarket. And you were sure to find him among the poor in the slums, as – like many a priest – he visited his people.

In 2001 when a group wished to accompany their Archbishop to Rome to see him created a Cardinal, he told them to stay at home and to give to the poor any money saved for the trip.

No wonder, then, that he comes across as a man with the common touch. He doesn’t ‘put himself above’ people. When the Cardinals filed up to pledge their loyalty after electing him Pope, he didn’t use the traditional throne. He was also happy to simply stand with the Cardinals on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square – not stepping onto the platform provided to give the Pope prominence…All this is hardly surprising in a man who, on bended knee, used to wash the feet of AIDS sufferers – in imitation of Jesus – during Holy Week.

In St. Peter’s Square he first left silence for prayerful good wishes and blessing from the crowd – before himself giving the formal Papal blessing. We saw here a personality used to constant contact with the public : in today’s language, a ‘people person’ having ‘communications savvy’.

And he never forgot the ordinary person when it came to dealing with Government. “We live in the most unequal part of the world –which has grown the most, and reduced misery the least”, he declared. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven – and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many”.

Handing on Jesus’ message

Growing up in the 1940s, Jorge Mario Bergoglio attended the local church playground, where the poorer children played. As a teenager, he had part of a lung removed due to infection. He first took up scientific studies (chemistry). But then, at the age of 21, he decided to train for the priesthood.

Today, as a religious leader, his views remain largely the views of those he had known as the traditional ‘solid citizens’ or ordinary members of the parish. He no doubt feels himself bound by the blueprint handed down by Jesus himself – and will hardly go for Do-It-Yourself experimenting. Nor is he at all likely to opt for changes in sexual ethics which might loosen the fabric of family life.

The grouping, or religious order, which the 21-year-old joined in the seminary – the Jesuits (my own Order) – was founded by a man who had spent decades soldiering as a follower of local princelings in and around Spain’s Basque country. This man – Ignatius, from Loyola – had cherished great dreams of winning glory in battle and of winning the hand of some princess in marriage. But a cannon-ball shattered his leg during a siege.

Saint Francis reminds us of Jesus

As he lay in bed recovering, Ignatius found himself tiring of his old dreams. These were now replaced by new dreams : dreams of a life lived totally in the following of Jesus – like the lives of the new wandering friars who served the poor. The most famous of these – Dominicans and Franciscans – was Francis of Assisi…And I think this story helps to explain why our new Pope has taken the name, ‘Francis’.

Of course, Ignatius freed up the Jesuits to be even more far-flung travellers than the friars : they were to be available to the church to go to any part of the globe, and to take on any urgent task of the day. (The new Pope did a period of study in Germany – and, for a shorter time in 1980, was learning English in Dublin).

Pope Francis is one person who excels in demonstrating the common humanity and compassion of the ordinary man and women in the street. He had hard words for priests who were unwilling to baptize the children of unmarried couples or of single mothers: “This is the hypocrisy of today, this is the clericalisation of the Church”, he complained. “These are the people who want to keep God’s people from salvation”.

Watching the new Pope on television, one woman remarked: “He’s bringing it all back to basics”. And an American Cardinal-elector summed up: The job of the Pope is to remind us all of Jesus.

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