Many of us non-RC traditionalist all over the world had awaited the news from Rome with some trepidation. In the end it turned out to be rather good. Pope Francis, the first non-European Bishop of Rome since Gregory III (d. 741), is universally described as “modest” and “moderate”—which is much preferred to the dreaded “bold” or “courageous,” in the sense that those words are used by the global media.
“He lives like a monk in a small apartment, travels by bus, and detests all vanity,” Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro told me when he heard the news. His Grace has visited Buenos Aires repeatedly in recent years as the Orthodox Diocesan Administrator, but he has not met Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who was mostly in Rome on those occasions. “I’ve heard from many local people, however, both lay and clergy, that he radiates a burning faith,” says the Metropolitan and adds that his simplicity and compassion for the poor go hand in hand with doctrinal firmness.
Two examples illustrate this dichotomy. When Pope John Paul II appointed him a cardinal in 2001, Bergoglio appealed to affluent Argentines not to fly to Rome to celebrate his investiture but instead to donate to charity the money they would have spent on air fare. In 2010 he furiously opposed Argentina’s legalization of same-sex “marriages,” arguing that children need to have the right to be raised and educated by a father and a mother. In a letter to the faithful he spoke strongly: “Let us not be naïve, we are not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.” Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner reacted by saying that his tone was reminiscent of “medieval times and the Inquisition.”
After an unprecedented 35 years of non-Italian pontificates, many observers had expected the Italian contingent in the College of Cardinals to insist on one of their own. Jorge Bergoglio is as close to being an Italian, however, as is possible for a straniero. He was born in Argentina in 1936 to first-generation Italian immigrants, speaks Italian without an accent, and has a deep grounding in Italian culture, arts and literature. At 76, Pope Francis is significantly older than expected by laity or predicted by punditry. His election is a compromise which will keep most traditionalists contented, if not exactly enthused, while giving the reformist zealots another decade or so to select a strong, charismatic candidate for their long-planned onslaught. Pope Benedict’s sudden decision has caught them off-guard and unprepared.
Among the congratulatory messages sent to Francis, the one from France’s President Francois Hollande was remarkable for its cold, Christophobic rudeness. Hollande said that France, “faithful to its universal principles of liberty, equality and fraternity,” would continue its “dialogue” with the Holy See for “peace, justice, solidarity and human dignity.” That country used to be Christian, once. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, on the other hand, made an innocent mistake when stating that the new pope’s “choice of the name Francis suggests that he wants to call us all back to the transformation that St Francis knew and brought to the whole of Europe.” As a Jesuit—the first ever to become pope—Bergoglio was guided in his choice of the name by the co-founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Francis Xavier.