CRIKEY ARTICLE | Mar 14, 2013 11:18AM:

Pope Francis: an authentic moral leader for our times?

Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been named Pope Francis. Catholics around the world will unite behind a man of authenticity, writes long-time Vatican watcher Michael Hewitt-Gleeson.

The white smoke clears to reveal Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. First impressions?

  • The conclave is a very astute gathering of electors.
  • They have elected a “good” pope, a pope for the poor. Exactly the kind of choice that is most needed for the current times. Back to basics; back to the founder; simplicity; clarity. An authentic moral leader for the time.
  • The speed of the election. This may indicate their clarity of choice in that the conclave wanted a “good” pope. Not a politician nor a theologian but an imitator of Christ.
  • His chosen name, which the cardinals could not have guessed, further backs the wisdom of their choice.
  • His dress when he makes his first appearance — no tiaras or ermine-lined stole but a simple white cassock.

Let’s explore these first signs to see what they might tell us …

Our cardinal in Australia is a controversial figure who is widely liked and disliked at the same time, but no one is arguing he is not an educated, intelligent and clever man with lots of experience in the corridors of power. This can reasonably be said about anyone who has reached the high position of cardinal. Put crudely, one is not going to find too many bogans in the College of Cardinals.

Whatever our individual preferences for particular cardinals, the fact is that when they all sit together as electors in the Sistine Chapel, in conclave, we can know that it is one of the most astute, clever and highly experienced think tanks that the world can muster. More thoughtful than the United Nations, more experienced than Canberra, more diverse than the G20.

Compared to previous conclaves, this event had several weeks of meetings and gatherings between small and larger groups of cardinals. Of course, this drove the Curia nuts as they had put forward a very tight and hurried agenda to avoid precisely that. The last thing the Curia wanted was the cardinals talking to one another outside of their agenda. But the cardinals, as they flocked to Rome, insisted. They said we don’t want to be rushed. We want to get to know one another. We want to discuss the current and recent crises of the church. We want to talk, talk, talk. And they did. This was one of the first signs that this conclave would not be a rubber stamp to the Vatican bureaucracy.

They chose an outlier. He was not papabile. He was not one of the top 10 favourites. He was not on any of the favourites lists either in the media or the bookmakers. They chose a “good” pope. Not a prince, not a politician, not even a theologian but a pope for the poor. Why? It seems an inspired choice from a very alert group of electors who are clear that the future of the church is in asserting its moral leadership.

“Dare we hope for an authentic moral leader for our times? Could it really be Francis?”

Much of the recent commentary has been about the need for contemporary reform and for cleaning up Vatican bureaucracy but the strategic need for this unique institution is to get back to basics. To reflect the image of its founder.

This was a fast election. Faster than most since the average over the last 100 years has been three-plus days. We can speculate that this may indicate that the cardinals were on the same wavelength by the time they were locked in the chapel. Their weeks of meetings, discussions and private conversations had served them well. It was time. Time for the church to have a good pope. A moral leader, like a Mandela or perhaps a Pope John, who can, by actions not words, capture the imagination of the world. Simplicity. Clarity. Authenticity. These are the qualities that reflect their historical founder.

“I will be called Francis!” This is the first decision made by the new pope on his acceptance of election. Not Pius. Not John Paul. Not Benedict. But Francis, after Francis of Assisi. The choice of his regnum, the name under which he will rule, is the very first policy decision a new pope makes. So far, it’s the biggest single indication of his intentions. He chose the name of a poor but eloquent street-preacher. I suppose he could hardly have chosen the name of Jesus II but in choosing Francis he chose the very next best thing. No clearer message could be sent.

Except that there’s more. Saint Peter’s square is filled with thousands of Romans and pilgrims and tourists. The exclamation rings out across the square —  ”Habemus Papam!” (“We have a Pope!”)  — and the crowd roars in expectation and enthusiasm for this thrilling moment. And lo and behold a figure emerges in just a white cassock. He gives a humble blessing and then stands quietly and silently before the city and the world. No histrionics. No regal arm-waving. No triple-tiara nor gold-encrusted mitre. Not even wearing the traditional ermine-lined stole of Europe’s last absolute monarch. Just the very minimum. A small white zuchetto on his head and the basic white cassock. Stunning in its debut. Nostalgic in its pastoral symbolism.

My favourite movie of 2012 was Searching For Sugarman and I was immediately connected to the extraordinary scene at the end of the movie when the lost artist, Rodriguez, appears before his fans in South Africa. Humbly he stands there for 10 minutes until the tumultuous applause of hope and appreciation from his followers finally calms down.

Dare we hope for an authentic moral leader for our times? Could it really be Francis?

Stay tuned to the most interesting show on earth: The Vatican.

*Michael Hewitt-Gleeson is a cognitive scientist at the School of Thinking and has been a Vaticanologist for 30 years

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