Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his general audience June 2017 in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters

Editorial: A pope of firsts

  • March 9, 2018

On March 13, 2013 the new pope, a surprise selection, received thunderous cheers when introduced to thousands of pilgrims packed into a drizzly St. Peter’s Square. It was a precedent-setting night. Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first South American pope, the first Jesuit pope and the first pope named Francis.

He addressed the crowd in a prayerful tone and dropped hints that a non-European papacy, the first in more than 1,200 years, might be unconventional. That message was reinforced the next day when, carrying his own suitcase, Pope Francis paid his own hotel bill before moving into modest accommodations at the Vatican. 

Five years later, the 266th pontiff is still doing things his own way.

Francis assumed the job at age 76 with no illusions about what he faced. In an increasingly secular and consumerist society, he knew the Church was declining in numbers and influence in many parts of the world. And he saw the burdens Pope Benedict XVI carried during his final years. His wise response was to model a Church of humility, mercy and pastoral care, a Church, he said, of the poor for the poor in which priests were shepherds with the smell of sheep. Then he got to work.

In his first three years he finished an encyclical begun by Benedict and published three important documents of his own on themes central to his papacy: Evangelii Gaudium, on evangelization; Laudato Si’, on the environment; and Amoris Laetitia, on marriage and family. Each document was inspired in its own way, but nonetheless sparked talk in some secular media that the Pope was an economic socialist and environmental amateur, and raised concern among some Church leaders that the pastoral support he proposed for divorced and civilly remarried couples was misguided. None of that, however, detracted from his international popularity, which remains high.

One reason Pope Francis is admired is that he speaks his mind. He was never going to match the silly expectations of his early days — when some of his remarks were misconstrued and led to speculation he might radically change Church doctrine — but he remains popular because he confronts major issues in an unapologetically forthright manner. 

He can be practical, blunt, pastoral and humourous, occasionally all at the same time, such as when he addressed the important but arduous business of bringing the  Vatican bureaucracy, the Curia, into the 21st century. He likened the unenviable task to “cleaning an Egyptian Sphinx with a toothbrush.” 

Still, no one should suggest his papacy has been unblemished. He can be more vigilant, for example, on the sex abuse file, and many of his spontaneous remarks have stirred consternation and confusion. Overall, however, five years later, the Church is blessed to have this man of many firsts. 

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