Pope Francis signals church’s new direction

March 13, 2013 

There is always drama, suspense and history in the election of a new pope, but on Wednesday there came also feelings of surprise, relief and renewal.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was selected as the church’s 266th pontiff and the first pope from the Americas. There on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, a great and ancient edifice that symbolizes the power and grandeur of the Roman Catholic church, the new pope was introduced as Francis, a name that evokes St. Francis, a saint defined by his humility, his simplicity and his poverty.

With their selection of Bergoglio, the cardinals signaled that a church that had retreated into its rules and its Vatican cocoon had indeed heard from both its conscience and the world. It is time to change, to reach out to a new world and a new century and, in the midst of Lent, to atone and to renew.

“Let us begin this journey,” he said upon being introduced. “It is a journey of brotherhood and trust among us.”

Fittingly, one of the new pope’s first acts was not to bless the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square, but to ask them, and by implication all the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, to pause in silence and pray for him.

At 76, Francis is old, but he hardly appears elderly. He is only two years younger than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who became pope at 78, the oldest to be elected in nearly 300 years. But Francis, who as an archbishop traveled around Buenos Aires by public bus, appears more vital and engaged than Benedict and can be expected to give the church perhaps a decade of strong service.

And he will need to be strong in both his willingness to forgive and his desire to have his church forgiven. If his tenure is to be successful, Francis will have to reject the idea favored by conservative Catholics of “a smaller, but purer church,” a church that would rather reject its critics than learn from them. Francis should take up the long denied and postponed issues of whether women should become priests, whether priests should remain celibate and how the church will accept and include those who are gay.

Francis also will have to address the divide in the Catholic world where the church is fading in Europe and the U.S. even as it rises in Africa and remains a powerful influence in Latin America. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he must continue and increase Benedict’s efforts to reach out to victims of clergy sexual abuse. And he must find ways to change the priorities and policies that allowed such serious and destructive exploitation to fester so widely for so long.

But for all the challenges of the long road ahead, the election of Pope Francis also spoke to the power of faith still alive in the world and the ability of the pope to stir and direct humanity’s devotion to the divine. Francis was there Wednesday because of an act of humility by Benedict, who humanized the papacy by resigning from it, the first pope to step down in nearly 600 years.

That act led to another, an ending bringing a beginning.

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