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The early signs are clear. Pope Francis is a reformer.

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 15, 2013

Question #1: Why did the conclave choose Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio?

On Wednesday, as the conclave began its first full day of voting, I encouraged readers to “expect the unexpected.” Just a few hours later, when the white smoke rose from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, I ignored my own advice and told friends that the new Pontiff was probably Cardinal Scola, since the cardinals had made their choice quickly and he had been widely regarded as the leading candidate.

But was Cardinal Scola really the frontrunner? Evidently not. Like many others, I had based my prediction on what amounted to hearsay evidence: the Vatican-watchers’ reports on what others were saying. Some cardinals had offered predictions about how other cardinals would vote, but to my knowledge not a single cardinal-elector had said, in a simple declarative sentence, “I plan to vote for Cardinal X.”

Moreover, things change when the conclave begins. In the days leading up to the conclave the cardinals discuss the needs of the Church in practical terms, speaking about administrative problems and material resources. But when they enter into the conclave, into the atmosphere a spiritual retreat, they focus on something even more essential. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan said before the event, “you look for a man who reminds you of Jesus.” Cardinal Bergoglio met that description.

Eight years ago Cardinal Bergoglio had reportedly provided the chief competition for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the conclave that selected the latter to become Pope Benedict XVI. But analysts were wrong when they said the Argentine prelate had been a “rival” to the German. The two men are friendly, and their thinking is quite similar. In 2005 some cardinal-electors thought Cardinal Bergoglio was best suited to become Vicar of Christ, and some preferred Cardinal Ratzinger. Now in 2013, with Pope Benedict eliminated from the scene, the Argentine cardinal stood out more clearly.

Yes, there were other papabili, with their own impressive qualifications. But apparently none of them captured the attention of the conclave, so the simple piety and sharp intellect of Cardinal Bergoglio propelled him to the papacy. He may not have the charisma of John Paul II or the intellect of Benedict XVI—who does?—but he appeared to the cardinal-electors as the best man in their midst.

The cardinals could not afford to ignore practical considerations, of course. But Cardinal Bergoglio had impressive credentials on that level as well. He had been a bishop for over 30 years now, and archbishop of a huge metropolitan see for 24. Although he had never held a Vatican post he was well acquainted with the workings of the Roman Curia, he was one of only five residential cardinals who sat on three different Vatican congregations. For the many cardinals hoping for reform inside the Vatican he was the perfect choice: an outsider with inside knowledge.

Question #2: Will Pope Francis be a reformer?

Will our new Pope fulfill those hopes for reform? The very first acts of his pontificate show that he is pointed in that direction.

First he chose the name “Francis.” Evoking the memory of St. Francis of Assisi, the name indicates a commitment to simplicity, humility, and wholehearted love for all of God’s creation. At the same the name conjures up memories of the message that the great saint received from God at San Damiano: “Francis, go, rebuild my house, which as you see is in ruins.”

To grasp the full significance of this new Pope’s chosen name, consider this: For 1,100 years, every newly elected Pontiff had chosen a name that had been used by some other Pope before him. Since Pope Lando, who ruled from 913 to 914, every Pontiff on the historical records has a Roman numeral after his name, and the only Pontiff who chose a new name, John Paul I, explicitly said that he was taking the names of the two Popes before him, John XXIII and Paul VI. So when he chose an entirely new name, Pope Francis showed that he was prepared to strike out in a new direction.

Did you listen carefully to his words when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s? Pope Francis referred to himself repeatedly as the Bishop of Rome, and to Benedict XVI as the Bishop-emeritus of Rome. He never spoke of himself as the Pope, and alluded to his new pre-eminence only indirectly, when he observed that the Church in Rome “is the one that leads all the churches in charity.” Was this another display of humility? No doubt it was, but I think it was something more. I think Pope Francis was laying the groundwork for a new understanding of the Petrine office: one that will drop the trappings of monarchical power and emphasize instead the role of the Bishop of Rome as the focus of unity for the universal Church.

How would that vision of the papacy shape the new Pope’s plans for reform of the Roman Curia? At this point we don’t know; it will be interesting to see how he will tackle that formidable task. For now what is noteworthy is what Pope Francis has not done. As of this writing, he had not renewed the appointments of the Secretary of State and the other leaders of the Roman Curia. The authority of all these top Vatican officials lapsed when the resignation of Pope Benedict took effect. In the past it has been fairly routine for a new Pontiff to renew the appointments, perhaps replacing some officials with his own preferred candidates later. Pope Francis has already signaled the Curia—and the world—that his pontificate will not be “business as usual.”

Question #3: Why did Pope Francis visit St. Mary Major?

On Thursday morning the new Pope slipped out of the Vatican to pray at the basilica of St. Mary Major, provoking comment by the simplicity of his manner in the process. Why did he choose that particular church? Because St. Mary Major is the oldest church in Rome dedicated to Our Lady, the largest and the most prominent? Yes, yes. But there were other reasons:

  • While at the basilica, the Pope prayed before the image of Mary Salus Populi Romani: the protector of the people of Rome. Notice the reference to Rome again. The Pope is underlining his special commitment to the local diocese.
  • Next he visited the chapel where St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, celebrated his first Mass. Pope Francis, who has sometimes been disdained by his Jesuit confreres, shows that he holds fast to the best traditions of that religious order.
  • Finally he prayed at the tomb of St. Pius V. It is no coincidence that St. Pius V is renowned for regularizing the Roman liturgy, for firm opposition to a rising tide of Islamic power, and for attacking corruption in the Church: precisely the problems that Pope Francis now faces! St. Pius V strove to root out the sexual immorality that had become widespread among the clergy, and to implement the vision of the Council of Trent. Again our new Pope faces remarkably similar challenges.

While he is humble and self-deprecating, Pope Francis is no pushover. He has been stalwart and uncompromising in his defense of human life, marriage, the family, and natural law—taking positions for which he has been vilified, and doubtless will continue to be vilified. But as he reminded the cardinal-electors in the first homily of his pontificate, “when we walk without the Cross…we aren’t disciples of the Lord. We are worldly.”

If there is a single leitmotif that runs through the thoughts that our new Pope has expressed on a wide variety of topics, it is the rejection of a “worldly” understanding of the Church. Pope Francis will show no sympathy for clerics trying to protect their own fiefdoms in the Church—even in the highest tiers of the Vatican bureaucracy. He will have little patience with any aspect of Church culture and tradition that does not advance the overarching goal of evangelization.

We do not yet know what practical plans the new Pope has in mind. Yet in the first few public gestures of his pontificate, Pope Francis has already shown us that this will be a pontificate of reform.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Mar. 16, 2013 12:03 PM ET USA

    I praise God that unity between Rome and Constantinople seems possible in the near future. Like St. Simeon's prayer two thousand years ago, I pray that it will happen in my lifetime!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 15, 2013 8:56 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis' homily insisting upon the cross and the profession of Christ crucified was impressive: "When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness." He appears to be continuing a trend that's been integral to the Benedictine reforms- a return to fundamentals. Dr. Mirus's writings have reflected this spirit for months. "We must profess the one glory: Christ crucified. And in this way, the Church will go forward." This is the only way.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Mar. 15, 2013 12:43 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis was a real surprise in other ways, too: for a Latin American of Italian descent, he showed very restrained gestures and a real serenity of countenance at his introduction. I was taken with him immediately, and I, too, am no pushover.