By Peter Eisner
Published April 28, 2013
His warm, disarmingly open demeanor, along with his apparent willingness to break with convention, have brought him converts of the popular sort. The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jose Mario Bergoglio, has been changing minds for some time. He is embraced by unassailable defenders all around, religious leaders, human rights figures among them.
But as the new pope settles in to his job, the question now is whether style will convert into an ability to handle substantive issues that have not gone away. The pope takes over at a trying time for the church – observance among Catholics is shrinking, and faith is shattered by the unresolved child sexual abuse scandal.
Pope Francis also has to contend with an administrative mess at the Vatican that prelates acknowledge has been a legacy of two popes who –whatever their qualities—were cerebral and hands off when confronted with bureaucracy. In particular, he faces a scandal at the Vatican Bank, which is awash with charges of mismanagement and corruption. The hope among priests is that he will work out the problems and that the pope’s sympathetic touch will be a great boon for the fortunes of the church and beyond.
Francis I appears to be onto something. A pope with a moral message carries enormous weight in the world – it has been so since the dawn of modern communications. I’ve just written a book “The Pope’s Last Crusade”–about the little-known Pope Pius XI, who inaugurated Vatican Radio in 1931 and raised his voice against Hitler and Mussolini. He became an icon of opposition to Fascism in Europe at a time when all other media there were censored.
Then, as now, Jewish leaders and others were praising the pope as an advocate for human rights.
Similarly, decades later, I was present when Pope John Paul II visited Chile in 1987 when visited during the Pinochet regime and called for justice. The pope can offer hope beyond the confines of the church.
Now, just as then, however, the pope will have to speak up and change minds. Francis is riding with good will and an expectation he will succeed.
The Reverend James Martin, a well-known Jesuit in the United States says that this is a perfect moment for such an unassuming, iconoclastic pope. He says the choice of the first Latin American and first Jesuit pope represents a sea change for the Catholic Church.
“It is a recognition that the center of gravity in the church has shifted,” he told me. “It is an immense turning point for the Catholic Church.”
There is a potential difficulty for the church, though. He is not expected to offer any major doctrinal changes, especially concerning the most controversial areas some members of the church are looking for. Don’t expect new declarations about celibacy among priests, or bringing women to the priesthood, or changes in the view of abortion and contraception.
In particular, the pope indicated this that he has no intention of changing his predecessor’s decision to order a crackdown on the largest assembly of U.S. nuns, who were judged to be challenging the Vatican’s conservative line and promoting “radical social themes.”
It remains to be seen whether his style and personal appeal will win points despite such controversies. The pope is pointing to an all-inclusive church – reaching out to other denominations and stressing concern for the poor.
Francis made contact with religious leaders of other faiths even before his installation. Key among his guests at that ceremony, for example, to highlight the immediate change was Batholome I, the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was the first time a leader of his group had attended the installation of a Roman Catholic pope in 1,000 years.
The pope also won praise from Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a prominent Jewish leader in Argentina; they wrote a book together, On Heaven and Earth. Relations also have thawed quickly with Muslims, who had strained contacts with Pope Benedict XVI. Sumer Noufouri, the secretary general of the Islamic Center of Buenos Aires, told the Washington Post that the new pope “is a person who listens and who knows Islam. (It is) an opportunity for a fresh start in relations…”
In the final analysis, said Father Martin, the immediate acceptance of the pope is a matter of spirit.
“Holiness is naturally attractive to people,” he said. “It is glimpsing the divine.”
Little more than a month after the start of his papacy, Francis has shown that he intends to come across as a pope for all seasons.
Peter Eisner has been an editor and reporter at the Washington Post, Newsday and the Associated Press. He is the author of the new book “The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler” (William Morrow 2013). For more visit his website: www.petereisner.com