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News Flash: The Catholic Church Is Not a Political Movement

Like most of you, I knew nothing of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio until yesterday. Yet shortly after learning the name of the man we now call Pope Francis, I found myself in an arm wrestle with Patrick Coffin over whether his last name was pronounced “Bear-GO-lee-yo” (as the Italians would say) or (Bear-GO-glee-oh), as Patrick insisted South Americans would say.

Now, just what a Canadian like Patrick knows about the Latin American pronunciation of a first-generation Italian surname is anyone’s guess, but I conceded, because Patrick is married to a lovely (to say nothing of an exceedingly patient) Peruvian lady, and also because when Patrick starts to lose an argument he gets moody.

Jimmy Akin told me that Cardinal Bergoglio was runner-up at the last conclave. That was news to me, and apparently to many others, as well because the cardinal did not appear on anyone’s short list.

And that’s all I knew.

In fact, here is the full disclosure: I had never heard of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio until yesterday.

Like many of you, I cast about for hours gathering what information and opinions I could. I went to those websites that, in the main, reflected my “take” on the Church and her condition in our age. I also read the reflections of Catholics best described as “progressive.” I sought the analysis of voices in between. I slogged through the secular media’s agenda-laden spins. I even watched a bit—a small bit, to be sure—of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. (Yes, he is still on the air, and yes, there is a palpable anti-Catholicism in the former Southern Baptist minister’s media extravaganza.)

But it wasn’t until I spoke to a dear friend of mine on the phone that I recovered my bearings. He is what the world would call a traditionalist, or even a “Trad Cat.” I expected him to give me at least a half dozen reasons to fret. He gave me not one. Instead, he told me he had canceled all of his meetings for the day and repaired to his home where he was gathered with friends and family. They had opened a few bottles of wine in the early afternoon and were celebrating that the Church had a new shepherd.

Laus tibi, Christe!

“It’s not everyday that we get to celebrate a new Holy Father!” he reminded me, and I could hear over the phone the smile in his voice that was also the smile in his heart. And as we speculated for a moment on the phone about who was most likely to get in a lather over the result of the conclave—The trads? The leftists? The mutinational capitalists?—we agreed that the announcement of Pope Francis is an occasion of unmitigated joy.

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus Papam.

Gaudium magnum, indeed. Great joy.

It is too easy to let the great joy of the day be obscured by our own small-minded takes on what the Church should be doing here and now. What perceived social injustice will the Church confront under Pope Francis? What agenda will he back? Which cause du jour will he champion? What damage will he repair? What steps will he take to prevent further damage? The exercise quickly degenerates into a game of “If I were the pope . . .”

The partisans who see human experience in political or economic terms are marshaling their arguments and attempting to draw people to their cause. Indeed, they were hard at their work well before Francis put on the Ring of the Fisherman. Last weekend’s Wall Street Journal fronted a feature headlined “What to look for in a new pope.” The piece comprised six essays, three from either side of the aisle, if you will. Each contributor subtly or not so subtly spelled out his personal platform for the pope’s first hundred days, as if the Chair of Peter were the bully pulpit of a global politician.

The papacy is not a bully pulpit because the Catholic Church is not a political movement. Nor, by the way, is she a national movement. Much is being made of the fact that the Pope Francis comes from Latin America. I am glad that South Americans can feel the kind of joy that Poles felt when John Paul II took office, but I feel confident that the College of Cardinals selected the man whom they felt could best govern the universal Church, irrespective of his ethnicity.

What is the Church? She is the divine institution for the care of souls. Her head is not here to press an American, European, African, or Asian agenda. He is not here to press a progressive or conservative agenda as he remakes the world according to Karl Marx or Adam Smith.

The Holy Father is here to lead souls to Christ.

My take? A man who cooks his own dinner, rides the public bus, squares off against a head of state over the sanctity of marriage, washes and kisses the feet of the diseased, and makes the first act of the first full day of his papacy a visit to Santa Maria Maggiore to invoke the heroic Lepanto pontiff, Pope Saint Pius V, and to call upon the maternal solicitude of our Lady is a good man to get behind as I stumble, and stumble, and stumble along the narrow path.

The good news is that you don’t have to take my take. The Holy Spirit has made clear his choice.

Laus tibi, Christe!

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