In our last report, we suggested the possibility of an American pope. And now it's become reality.
The big question is, how much of a game-changer will he really be?
One could be really excited about the fact that he's a humble man, avoiding the usual trappings of Vatican church leaders who live in luxury. Or that he favors social outreach and economic justice over ideological disputes about doctrine and theology. Or that he worked hard to modernize the Catholic church establishment in Argentina. Or that he's demonstrated an inclination to build bridges to other faiths like Islam, Judaism, and even Orthodox Christianity. Or that he's from the Jesuit order—one part of the Catholic church that lifts up education, and is known for its more intellectual, open-minded views.
Jesuits, in fact, "are renowned for their teaching, servants of the pope, but also for the witness, certainly in our country, to the need to witness to the poor and caring for the weak and speaking for justice," according to Irish Cardinal Sean Brady.
At the same time, some other aspects of his life, beliefs, and vocation aren't so wonderful, from the liberal Christian perspective. He's anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, anti-women's ordination, and traditionalist or conservative in many other areas, tending to uphold the party line of the establishment church.
So, it's anyone's guess as to which direction Pope Francis will take the Catholic church.
One could only hope, however, that the very choice of his new name signals something promising. His namesake, St. Francis of Assisi of the 13th century, was known for living a simple life, being close to nature (including animals), caring for the poor, and reforming a church that had become more obsessed with increasing its own wealth and power than ministering to the forgotten, impoverished, persecuted, and marginalized members of society.
For an inspiring look at the original Francis, a highly-recommended film is “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” by Franco Zeffirelli. You can view parts of it on YouTube, or get a copy from a local library.
If Pope Francis truly follows in the footsteps of St. Francis, the worldwide church could be in for a very different, new era of pastoral vigor, reconciliation, and rebirth. Let's all pray for the best.