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A Pope of Contradictions

The Catholic Answers staff was gathered in the small office library, lights dimmed, EWTN feed from St. Peter’s Square projected onto the blank wall. We did our best to break up the nervous wait with jokes and chatter, and with last-minute predictions and side bets. Then, finally, the balcony curtains opened and we all cheered as Cardinal Tauran stepped out to confirm what the smoke and bells had already announced: We had a pope.

Then a hush. We strained through our meager Latin to catch the name, but when it came—Bergoglio—the silence persisted. Who? That wasn’t one of the names near the top of the list. I did hear Jimmy Akin, who had studied the papabile form book better than anyone, give a murmur of recognition. Then came the second name—Franciscum—and I could only utter a feeble “wow.”

Worst. Pope announcement reaction. Ever.

But, with a full day now to gather my wits, I’d like to offer a few more reflected thoughts about our new Vicar of Christ:

Like some others, high on my papal-quality wish list was a vigorous younger man with a firm, aggressive administrative hand. Over the last generation, John Paul II captivated the world with his personality and Benedict XVI took us deeper into theological and liturgical mysteries with his brilliance. Now, I thought, it was time for a new sheriff-pope to ride into Rome and bust the entrenched bureaucracy; for a white tornado who would blow through the weak bishops, dissenting theologians, pro-abort pols, worship-space wreckovators, lavender mafiosi, and Clown Mass enthusiasts, leaving in his wake a scoured landscape safe for orthodoxy.

The 76-year-old fellow with jowls and thick spectacles who stood there waving stiff and unsmiling from the balcony didn’t seem to fit that bill.

But there is a reason—there are innumerable reasons—why I don’t get to vote for pope. For, contra my superficial eight-second impression of the man, it turns out that gentle Cardinal Bergoglio was a ferocious reformer, the kind of bishop who fights fascists for breakfast and rebukes presidents for lunch, then bathes AIDS patients after hours. He’s a kindly septuagenarian with drooping jowls and an adamantium spine. In a quote that has gotten wide play, an unnamed cardinal is reported to have said, “Four years of Bergoglio would be enough to change things.” New sheriff in town? Check.

What an admixture of humility and brashness we have already seen, even in his first minutes and hours!  Pope Francis is the first bishop of Rome in over a millennium to choose an unused name—it hasn’t been done since Pope Lando (the First, and for understandable reasons likely the Last) in 913. Yes, there was John Paul I, but that name was all about continuity, a humble nod to his two predecessors; Francis, on the other hand, is a thunderbolt of a novelty on the scale of the Luminous Mysteries.

Smart money was on Leo XIV or Pius XIII for a reformer-pope, or John XXIV for a pastoral pope, or even Benedict XVII out of respect to the giant who still walks among us. But Cardinal Bergoglio grabbed his papacy by the scruff and instantly made it his own. Franciscum. Just Franciscum.

And then he got on the bus with his former brother cardinals and went off to pay his hotel bill. But not before he asked the gathered throng to give him their blessing. Collegiality? I’ve got your collegiality right here, pal.

“Lowly and yet chosen.” That was Cardinal Bergoglio’s episcopal motto, combining in dynamic tension the humility of self-abasement and the glory of being an apostle of Christ. It’s easy to live and act like a prince—the triumphant clericalist. It’s easy to live like and act like a pauper—the hippie-pastor who calls you “dude” and tells you to call him “Rick.” But to live like a pauper while acting with the dignity and authority your office demands is a rare trick.

Francis’s poverty is another contradiction. As all the early stories report, he has eschewed an archbishop’s privilege and lived modestly—in a day when suburban American pastors have cooks and cleaning ladies (as a wise saying goes, “A rectory without a woman soon becomes a barracks”), Cardinal Bergoglio made his own meals in his small apartment. He rode the bus, or shanks’s mare.

Now, neither of his two predecessors could be said to have luxuriated in his office. John Paul II came up through Nazi devastation, then Soviet devastation, then the gray austerity of the Eastern Bloc; he preferred hiking books and a mountain forest to papal finery and easy Roman living. Benedict XVI lived in his mind, not a palace; he wore the velvet and ermine, to borrow from Chesterton, for the benefit of the people on the street. But Pope Francis’s choice of name, his unadorned white cassock and zucchetto, even that minimalistic wave and low-key greeting, signal that poverty and holy simplicity will be especial preoccupations of his reign.

How unexpected, how wonderful. Papal self-indulgence wasn’t on the cable news talking points list (title: “Crises in the Church”) prior to the conclave. Even professional anti-Catholics seem to have grown tired of rewarming legends about Catholic decadence: there are juicier things to rant about than thrones and tiaras and buried Vatican treasure. And other Catholic leaders have espoused Catholic social teaching’s carefully moderated economic principles, which find no easy home on the political right or left. In short, we weren’t looking for the Pope of the Poor.

But we got the Pope of the Poor, and in one day he’s looking like another master-stroke of the Holy Spirit. Viva!



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