A Pope for the Poor

Will Francis' personal humility and focus on poverty help revive the church's fortunes on his home continent?


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    "Go forth and set the world on fire." In his own nonincendiary ways, Pope Francis, the first Jesuit to become Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, is heeding the words of the founder of his order, the 16th century Basque soldier-saint Ignatius of Loyola. Just four months into his reign, Francis has raised expectations for change and renewal in the 2,000-year-old spiritual empire simply by changing tactics. His retired predecessor's reputation for theological remove has been replaced by the new Pope's seemingly spontaneous ecumenical embrace of all.

    This new Franciscan style, however, may not simply be the overflowing of the divine spirit in an incipient saint. The Jesuits were a militant order at their founding--the shock troops of the Counter-Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries--and the head of the Society of Jesus is still referred to as Father General. Francis is not technically the head of the Jesuits, but he once ran the division of the order in Argentina and has had to contend with secular powers--like Fernández--inimical to his church. He has a stratagem straight from Jesus: "I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." Speak with the gentleness of Assisi, but think with the cunning of Loyola.

    The gentleness was on display on the night of March 13, the moment Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was revealed as the new Pope on the balcony high on the facade of St. Peter's Basilica. The first Pope from the New World did not straightaway invoke his fresh, God-given powers by blessing the crowd; instead, in a surprising act of spiritual democracy, he asked the faithful in the piazza beneath him to keep silence and to pray for him. The days that followed established the persona of the modest Pope: going back to pay his hotel bill; wearing sensible black shoes, not the showy red of his predecessor; getting his own coffee from a vending machine; suddenly stopping the Popemobile as it journeyed around St. Peter's Square to embrace an infirm young pilgrim. During Holy Week, he stunned conservative Catholics when, during the traditional washing of feet--in emulation of Christ doing the same for his disciples, who were all men--he ministered to a Serbian woman, an imprisoned non-Catholic felon invited to be part of the ritual. Says Rome-based theologian Robert Dodaro: "A simple gesture is not always a simple gesture when it is the Pope's gesture." What is this Pope trying to say?

    Less than two weeks before his scheduled trip to Brazil, he rode an Italian coast guard vessel to the forlorn island of Lampedusa, where he preached to, among others, Muslim migrants who had braved the Mediterranean reaching for a better life. An estimated 8,000 people entered Europe through Italy in the first six months of this year. From 1994 to 2012, more than 6,000 others died in the attempt. "Who wept for these people who were aboard the boat?" Francis asked in his homily. "For the young mothers who brought their babies? For these men who wanted to support their families? ... We are a society that has forgotten how to cry." By adding Lampedusa to his itinerary, he injected himself into Europe's furious debate about immigration and economics, coming down as the unapologetic advocate for those left behind by the global culture of greed and materialism.

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