Yesterday afternoon at 1:08 Dallas time, white smoke began billowing from the Sistine Chapel. An hour later, Pope Francis I was announced. What do we know about him?
First, his election is historic. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first non-European pope in modern times. Born to immigrant Italians in Argentina, he is the first pope from South America, which has the most Catholics of any continent. Spanish is the most common language in the Catholic church.
Second, he is a humble leader. His biographer states, “It’s a very curious thing: When bishops meet, he always wants to sit in the back rows. This sense of humility is very well seen in Rome.” In Buenos Aires, he rides the bus, visits the poor, lives in a simple apartment and cooks his own meals. When he became a cardinal, he encouraged his friends not to waste their money on flights to Rome for the ceremony, but to give that money to the poor instead.
Third, he is an intellectual pastor. He has degrees in philosophy and chemistry, has taught literature and psychology, and speaks Spanish, Italian and German. The first Jesuit to become pope, he has kept his order’s tradition of social outreach. Last year he told Catholics, “Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers; go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.” He called priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers “today’s hypocrites.” He is the first pope to choose the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, to reinforce his solidarity with the poor.
Fourth, he is a committed evangelist. In Buenos Aires, he created parishes, led pro-life initiatives, and started new pastoral programs such as a commission for divorcees. He recently stated, “We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church. It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that’s sick because it’s self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former.”
Pope Francis I, in his first address to the world, stated, “Let us begin this journey together, this journey for the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a journey of friendship and love and faith between us. Let us pray for one another, let us pray for all the world.” Then he asked the crowd to pray for him as he began his papacy: “I’d ask you to pray to God so that he can bless me.” I’ve already answered his call, and invite you to join me.
The new pope’s example illustrates this fact: We can do much for God after we pray, but little before we do.