The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Northeastern Pennsylvania and other local observers believe the first public actions of Pope Francis are telling of what Catholics might expect of their new leader.
The Most Rev. Joseph Bambera, bishop of the Diocese of Scranton, said on Wednesday that he found some reports of Pope Francis’ first public appearance “rather touching.”
When he emerged on the balcony at St. Peter’s Square to deliver his first blessing, “he didn’t have the traditional velvet mozzeta (cape) they refer to with the ermine trim. He just wore a white cassock and then put a stole on when he was going to bless the people,” Bambera noted.
“What I thought was most touching and perhaps very reflective of who this man is and what he will bring to the Chair of St. Peter was his request of all those thousands of people who were gathered there, that before he blessed them, that they would bless him and pray for him, and he knelt down and that crowd was silent in prayer for him. What a wonderful, wonderful statement of faith in God’s people and of ultimately a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that he expressed in that gesture,” Bambera said.
Bambera admitted he was surprised at the College of Cardinals’ choice for the new pope, as he believes many people were.
“I don’t believe that he was on the top list of a lot of those who seemed to be handicapped in the election,” Bambera said.
Bambera said many people might assume Bergoglio selected the name Francis based on St. Francis of Assisi, who was known to be a humble man. But Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina is also the first Jesuit to be elected pope and Francis Xavier was a founding companion of the Society of Jesus, Bambera noted, adding his congratulations to the Jesuit community.
“I think it will take some time for him to sort out for us why he chose that name,” Bambera said. “Regardless, I think clearly whether … he picked Francis Xavier or Francis of Assisi, the humility that he has already shown by his gestures and his words I think clearly reflect Francis of Assisi in many ways.”
Jesuits may be in a bit of a bind with the appointment of one of their own as pope for the first time in the history of the office, Misericordia University Associate Professor of Religion Joseph Curran said.
“I think for a lot of Jesuits, to have a Jesuit selected as pope is a great moment,” Curran, who earned his college degrees at Jesuit schools, said. “I think Jesuits will want to take great pride in it, but as Jesuits, they can’t take great pride in it.”
As if to reinforce that notion, the president of the University of Scranton — a Jesuit institution — issued a relatively subdued statement.
“The University of Scranton shares the joy of Catholics worldwide at the selection of His Eminence Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to serve as our next pope,” the Rev. Kevin Quinn wrote. “Pope Francis, as he has chosen to be forever known, shares a special bond with Scranton and all Jesuit colleges and universities across the globe as the first member of the Society of Jesus to be so elevated”
The choice of Bergoglio offered other firsts as well. He is the first pope chosen from Latin America and, Curran suspects, may be the first pope chosen from outside Europe. “I believe there were some African popes very early in Church history,” he said, “but they were transplanted Europeans.”
And Bergoglio is the first pope to select the name Francis, which Curran and other saw as deeply significant.
“What this says to me is a kind of simplicity, a spiritual simplicity, and an attempt to return to simplicity as a new way of doing things,” Curran said.
King’s College President The Rev. John Ryan echoed that sentiment in a brief statement issued between weekly staff meetings.
“St. Francis was a humble man and friend of the poor. The new pope’s selection of this name is a sign that he will extend his devotion to the poor and marginalized people of Argentina to the entire Church,” Ryan wrote.
“He has dealt with social injustice (in Argentina),” Curran said. “He’s very aware of income inequality, he has spoken very eloquently about the gap between the rich and the poor.”
The selection of a pope from Latin America, where the number of Catholics has been growing rather than shrinking, was not a surprise — many had predicted as much. The selection of a Jesuit was surprising, Curran said, in part because Jesuits have a history of clashing with Rome. “Jesuits have a great history, but a rough history,” he said. “I thought it was more likely to be an American than to be a Jesuit.”
Bergoglio had something else working against him: age — he’s 76. “He was widely perceived as the runner up last time, and going into this conclave most people dismissed him as too old for this time,” Curran said. On the plus side, Bergoglio has Italian roots in his family, which may have worked in his favor as the choice was made.
The new pope is “very orthodox on church teachings on morality,” Curran said, so Catholics should not expect sweeping changes.