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Schroth: Pope Francis' inauguration brings hope

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the pope mobile during his inauguration mass at St Peter's square at the Vatican. (Mar. 19, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Tuesday morning, in St. Peter's Square under a brilliant Roman sun, Pope Francis told us in his inaugural Mass to protect one another and the environment. He told us that to be tender is not to be weak. People around the world listened, and looked for signs about the direction of the Catholic Church.

Catholics have long hoped that somehow the church might be reborn in their lifetimes in a way that adapted its teachings to the modern world. If hope died, some slammed the door on the way out, or just left an empty seat in a pew. Others prayed that better leadership would save them.

Pope Benedict's resignation inspired a month of dreams: The next pope might listen, work for peace, allow contraception, talk to the young, be from Africa or Latin America, clean up corruption wherever it is.

Now we snap out of the dream. The cardinals, all "created" by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, chose someone different -- a Jesuit from Argentina -- but still very much like themselves. He's accused of not strongly opposing the military junta that ruled in the 1970s and has used harsh words against same-sex marriage.

His defenders answer that he argued behind the scenes to save two kidnapped Jesuits and others -- but perhaps not loudly enough. They say that he and his Jesuit critics were reconciled in a special liturgy years later, and that he and others publicly apologized for not doing more during the "dirty war." On gay marriage, he had tried to argue for a civil contract, but lost.

Nevertheless, the more I learn the better he looks. Luke's Gospel defines Jesus by his devotion to the poor. In Francis' vision, to save itself, the church's first step would be to change its image, get rid of its self-centered clericalism and its rich man's lifestyle, and turn itself outward. Let the Holy Spirit move it as the wind moves a ship at sea.

Only 10 percent of Argentines go to Mass. He told his priests: Rent a garage, staff it with a lay person who will listen, teach and give communion. In a 2007 interview in the Rome-based Catholic monthly 30 Days, he described the dynamics of grace and doctrine: "One does not remain faithful, like the traditionalists or fundamentalists, to the letter. Fidelity is always a change, a blossoming, a growth." The worst thing that could happen to a church? "Spiritual worldliness" . . . like the Pharisees, "putting oneself at the center."

The new pontiff can imitate St. Francis of Assisi in two ways. The saint's reputation is built on more than poverty, talking with birds and taming a wolf. Though he did not court martyrdom, like some of his brothers who were slain by Muslims, he traveled during the Fifth Crusade (1219) to the crusaders army at Damietta, Egypt. On the eve of the battle, he got through the enemy lines and met cordially with the Sultan Al-Kamil in a failed plea to make peace with Islam. Perhaps this Francis can help finish that job.

Fordham professor Maureen O'Connell, in The Washington Post, reminds us that Francis and St. Clare, both from rich families, developed a female wing of his order. When she was 18, she met with him secretly so he could lead her to Christ. She founded the Poor Clares, to live lives of poverty, service and insecurity, an order recognized by Pope Innocent IV two days before her death. Francis and Clare loved one another as Christians, a love that empowered their service of Christ in the poor. Pope Francis should bring women into his leadership circle for the same purpose.

We cannot responsibly slam the door on the institutional church as long as "fidelity is always change," and hope remains that some policies may be reformed. Meanwhile, that the poor should not be frozen out of the economy, as they are today, is as fundamental to Jesus' teaching as we can get. Whatever decisions the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit, made in the cauldron that was Argentina in the 1970s, today as Pope Francis he will justify our commitment to the future church.

Raymond A. Schroth, a Jesuit, is literary editor of America magazine.


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