A Pope for the Universal Church

The Catholic Church is a global community that transcends national borders and identities, uniting people on all continents who share certain fundamental beliefs and practices.  But the daily life and experiences along with the hopes and concerns of Catholics can vary widely across the globe.  These differences have shaped the way Catholics from around the world have reacted to the surprise selection of Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, as pope.

There is powerful symbolism in the election of the first Latin American pope.  Many see the choice as a reflection of the shifting center of gravity in the Church, away from the scandals and malaise of the West and toward the energy and enthusiasm of the Church in the Global South.

The election of Pope Francis however may be more than just a symbolic shift.  It is not unreasonable to think that there may be less of an emphasis on the concerns that occupy American and European minds, such as the challenge of secularism and all things related to human sexuality.

While CNN was talking to women’s ordination activists from the West after the white smoke appeared announcing the election of a new pope, hundreds of millions of Catholics from around the world, particularly in developing countries, had their hopes focused on far different matters, ones that relate to their everyday lives and are far more intimately connected to the global common good.

These hopes were heightened when they heard the name the new pope had chosen: Francis.  Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the most beloved saints among all Catholics, admired for his humility, simplicity, love of creation, and devotion to the poor.

In his first appearance before those gathered in Saint Peter’s square and those watching around the world, Pope Francis seemed to radiate the joy and tranquility shared by so many Catholics in the developing world, where the Church is flourishing.  And he seemed to embody some of those characteristics that so many admire in Saint Francis.

The pope is known for choosing to ride the bus to work rather than traveling in the comfort of a limousine.  His humility was on display when he asked the people to pray for him, “their bishop.”  His inclusiveness was seen when he chose to lead us in the prayers Catholics know best, such as the Our Father and Hail Mary, rather than dazzle us with his brilliance by reciting a prayer that he had composed for the occasion.

Encouraging quotes were quickly circulating that showed his devotion to the poor and commitment to upending unjust social structures that perpetuate poverty and injustice.  These were affirmed when he said, “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”  And in his inaugural mass, he spoke of “protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need” and embracing “with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.”

While much of the American media fixates on how Pope Francis will or will not alter the Church’s position on controversial issues like gay marriage or married priests, most Catholics on other continents are more interested in how he will address global economic inequalities, the destruction and degradation of the environment, and bringing durable, just peace to areas plagued by conflict.

Many are optimistically hoping that the election of this Argentinian pope will not just serve as a symbol of the emergence of the Church in the Global South, but as a catalyst in redirecting the Church’s focus toward those pressing matters that so greatly affect the common good.

No one knows what the papacy of Pope Francis will ultimately bring to the Church and the world, but early indications seem to point to a change in style and attitude if nothing else.  They seem to point to a shift toward even greater humility and simplicity—toward a greater emphasis on the Church as a global community of persons rather than one defined by its hierarchy of prominent clerics.

If Pope Francis in any way follows in the footsteps of his namesake, he will be adored by Catholics across the globe for his personal holiness and virtue, and he will be loved as a champion of the poor and vulnerable, an enemy of injustice.

This possibility should not only excite Catholics in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  It should excite all people who support freedom from fear and want, all those working together to build a more just, loving world.  All Catholics, including those in the West, should embrace this global vision and pray that these hopes might be fulfilled so that the Catholic Church can truly fulfill its mission to become authentically universal and united in love.