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Unpacking the heavily-laden symbolism of the first appearance of Pope Francis

2013 March 13

The extent of the revolution which has just taken place in the Catholic Church was evident when the new Pope stepped out onto the balcony of St Peters around an hour after the white smoke had emerged from the chimney of the Sistine chapel and the mighty bells of the Vatican pealed out.

The world had had a few seconds to prepare itself. The French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran who made the announcement Habemus Papem – we have a Pope – in medieval Latin revealed two things. The first was the name Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The second was the name he had chosen – Francis.

With the name Bergoglio we knew some decisive changes had been set in train. The  Archbishop of Buenos Aires is the first non-European pope for 1000 years. He is the first pope from the New World, most specifically from Latin America where the majority of the planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics live. He is the first pope ever from the Jesuits, the order renowned for having produced some of the most intellectually profound, and often freethinking, church thinkers over the centuries.

With the name Francis came a signal of another new departure. No pope had ever before taken the name of the great saint of the poor, Francis of Assisi.  And Bergoglio was known for his commitment to social justice and his championing of the poor of his native Argentina in the teeth of a global economic crisis whose cost fell chiefly upon the shoulders of the most vulnerable.

Bergoglio, it was known, was a humble man who had moved out of his archiepiscopal palace and into a simple apartment. He had given up his chauffeur-driven car and takes the bus to work. He cooks his own meals.

But it was when he stepped out onto the balcony that the true weight of the change became evident to the world.  There was none of the double-handed boxer’s salute with which Benedict XVI had celebrated his triumph. Instead, in plain white, wearing the simplest of crosses, he gave a single wave to the assembled crowds in St Peter’s Square and then stood and just looked. He was the Bishop of Rome presenting himself to the people of Rome.

He began with a quotidian Good Evening – and then made a gentle joke about the conclave having to travel to the ends of the earth to find a bishop for this beautiful city. He asked those watching him to pray for his predecessor, a pope emeritus, a massive departure in itself. And then he said the Our Father.

Tradition has it that he offers the city and the world a blessing, urbi et orbi. But before he did that he said to the people; “I need to ask you a favour”. He asked that, before he blessed them, the people should pray for him first. He asked them to do it in silence, another departure. And he bowed his great head and shoulders before the crowd to receive their prayer.

In a few short moments, packed with symbolism of so many kinds, Pope Francis I signalled that things are going to be rather different.

The secular world should not make the mistake of thinking he will change what Rome  says on the raft of interwoven issues which separate the worldview of the church and our increasingly secularised society. This is a man who spoke out strongly against Argentina’s recent legalisation of gay marriage. He says that gay adoption is a form of discrimination against children. He opposes abortion and euthanasia. He even holds to church teaching that artificial contraception is wrong.

The truth is that a conclave of cardinals, all of whom were appointed by the conservatives popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were never going to elect anyone who did not hold the line on all that.

Yet in Pope Francis I they have made an inspired and original choice. Administration and governance are not his strongest suits, so he will need to chose shrewdly the men with whom he must surround himself to break the arrogant self-serving system of entrenched hierarchical clerical privilege which has bedevilled the Vatican for so long. But he will have no truck with those who seek to cover up child sex abuse in a misguided attempt to protect the reputation of a church on which it has merely brought scandal and a crisis of moral authority.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a man of prayer, of deep spirituality, personal humility, pastoral warmth and attractive simplicity. He is not a man afraid of radical choices. It is hard to think that the cardinals could have chosen better.

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