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Our New Holy Father

The Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton

When I learned of the election of our new Roman Pontiff, His Holiness Pope Francis, the first thing I did was to spend a few moments in the chapel at my residence praying for him. I prayed that the Holy Spirit would sustain him with the gifts he would need to effectively shepherd the Roman Catholic Church, an enormous 1.2 billion member community of faith spread across the globe. I have already written to him in my name and yours assuring him of our loyalty, obedience, and prayers. I ask you to join me in praying for him often.

As the conclave began, many commentators said it would last four or five days. They listed the names eight to ten papabili, cardinals, they considered “front runners.” They also said the new Pontiff would almost certainly be in his sixties. Of course, they were wrong. None of these commentators mentioned the name that Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, the Cardinal Proto-deacon of the Holy Roman Church announced from the loggia of the Basilica of St. Peter on Wednesday evening, March 13, 2013. “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus Papam: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.” After that, the world had its first glimpse of His Eminence, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J. Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, now the 266th Successor of St. Peter, Bishop of Rome, and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.

Within moments, the media made their first misstatements about him. “Before blessing the faithful, the Pontiff bowed before them and asked them to bless him!” This is incorrect. Before blessing the faithful, the Holy Father bowed before God and asked the people to pray that God would bless him.

Pope Francis’ election to the Chair of St. Peter has stirred the interest and the imagination of the world. He is the first non-European Pope in modern times. Not, as some have said, the first ever. There were, for example, three African Popes according to the Liber Pontificalis: Pope St. Victor I (186-198), Pope St. Miltiades (311-314), and Pope St. Gelasius (492-496). The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, he is the first Pope from the “new world” and the first from South America, where five hundred million (more than 40 percent) of the world’s Catholics currently live. His election as the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere is a dramatic reminder that the center of gravity in the Catholic Church shifted significantly from Europe and North America to South America, Africa, and Asia! The majority of the world’s Catholics are no longer of European background.

Many were surprised to learn that he is also the first Jesuit priest elected as successor of St. Peter. Conventional wisdom has suggested that a Jesuit would not govern the Apostolic See because religious order priests are not frequently appointed as bishops. The Superior General of the Society of Jesus, whose offices are in Rome, oversees the world’s largest order of men religious (more than 17,000 members), and has sometimes been called “the Black Pope” because of the black Jesuit cassock he wears and his great responsibility in the Church.

Throughout history, the Jesuits have had a very close relationship with the Holy See and demonstrate a genuine support for the Roman Pontiff. However, at certain points in history, there have been well known tensions between the Vatican and the Society. Under secular pressure, Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits in 1773 in parts of Europe and in the Spanish empire, in the new world. However, Pope Pius VII restored the Jesuits in 1814. The Holy See has censured a number of prominent Jesuit theologians for proposing ideas deemed to be inconsistent with the Church’s teachings. These have included Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., Fr. Anthony de Mello, S. J., Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., and Fr. Roger Haight, S.J. Many other distinguished Jesuits have made singular contributions to theology including Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J., Fr. Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S. J., Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., Henri Cardinal de Lubac, S.J., and the renowned American ecclesiologist, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.

In 2008, Benedict XVI, Pontiff Emeritus, asked the Jesuits to affirm their “total adhesion to Catholic doctrine” on certain issues which today are strongly debated in the secular culture, such as the relationship between Christ and other religions, aspects of the theology of liberation, divorce, and homosexuality. Nevertheless, Benedict XVI appointed Jesuits to notable positions in the curia, including the Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, S.J. and the Vatican Press Secretary, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J. Throughout his ministry as a Jesuit, Pope Francis has forthrightly affirmed the Church’s teachings on faith and morals. As a Jesuit Provincial he was quite clear in his rejection of atheistic Marxism’s influence on liberation theology. He has also rejected ideas arguing in support of Catholics dissenting from the magisterium.

One of the most important aspects of the Holy Father’s Jesuit background is the fact that all members of the Society of Jesus are steeped in the profound spirituality of their founder, St Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises constitute one of the great spirituality traditions in the Church. The thirty-day retreat, the heart of Ignatian spirituality, has almost certainly helped to shape the Pope’s interior life. I have personally made two life-changing thirty day retreats with great spiritual consolation. The Church will certainly benefit from having the barque of Peter guided through stormy seas by a man with such a Christ-centered spirituality.

Catholics and the world in general have taken note of the name selected by Cardinal Bergoglio. Popes have usually selected one of the great names in papal history such as Pius, Gregory, Leo, Benedict, Urban, John, Paul, or John Paul. None has chosen Francis. The choice of names is intended in some way to suggest a theme of the new pontificate. As a Jesuit, the name clearly evokes St. Francis Xavier, a close companion of St. Ignatius. However, the Pope selected the name of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the Church’s most admired Saints, known for his simplicity and his concern for those who are poor. Unlike Albino Cardinal Luciani, who became John Paul I, this Pope has indicated he will only become Francis I, if a future pope selects the same name.

Some have called it “a most stunning” choice and “precedent shattering,” suggesting that the new Pope might be sending a signal that this will not be business as usual. They suggest the name symbolizes humility, simplicity, poverty, and the rebuilding of the Catholic Church. Miguel Diaz, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, called the new Pontiff’s choice of names “very significant.” “Francis of Assisi is the saint who opted for the little ones in God’s kingdom. This man represents a change and could potentially be a great gift for leadership, servant leadership, for all of us within the Church and society.”

I have met the Holy Father on two occasions at the Vatican. He was genuinely kind, approachable, and compassionate. He is now called to be the Rock. I know that some commentators are suggesting that he will be “Pope Francis the Reformer” not only improving the work of the Roman Curia but also radically changing the Church’s doctrine and discipline on questions that are the constant preoccupation of the secular media: married priests, the ordination of women, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and same sex marriage. However, nothing in the ministry and the many published writings of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio suggests that he will make such changes in doctrine and discipline. Indeed, the 114 cardinal electors would only choose as Bishop of Rome, the defender of the deposit of faith, a man who holds and teaches the Catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles. This is not because the Pope or any Bishop chooses to be “doctrinally conservative on so-called social issues.” It is because he is “doctrinally faithful” on issues of faith and morals.

I think the new Pontiff will govern the Church in a style uniquely his own and quite different from his predecessor. Pope Francis was standing, rather than sitting, when he received the oath of allegiance from the College of Cardinals after his election; for his appearance on the loggia, he wore his white house cassock instead of choir robes; he frequently rode the bus in Buenos Aires; he liked to cook for himself; and he has announced that he will celebrate the Holy Thursday Liturgy in a local prison rather than at St. Peter’s (not unlike Blessed John XXIII’s Christmas prison visits).

I hope that the focus by the secular media upon his modest personal manner does not lead people to false expectations of changes in magisterial teachings that he clearly will not change. His books and articles are unambiguous on this question. I fear that any expectation of fundamental changes in Catholic teachings will lead to painful disappointment and hurt feelings as the new Pontificate unfolds. At this time, it would be wrong to underestimate the impact that changes in style can have in a media age. Time will tell where the wisdom lies.
I was very happy indeed to join with my brother priests and bishops around the world who beginning on March 13th prayed at the altar with one voice, “We pray for Francis our Pope … .”

Pew Research Shows Changes in Number of Catholics Around the World

Over the past century, the number of Catholics around the globe has more than tripled, according to the Pew Research Center. In 1910, Catholics comprised about half (48 percent) of all Christians and 17 percent of the world’s total population. A century later, Catholics still comprise about half (50 percent) of Christians worldwide and 16 percent of the total global population.

What has changed substantially over the past century is the geographic distribution of the world’s Catholics. In 1910, Europe was home to about two-thirds of all Catholics, and nearly nine-in-ten lived either in Europe (65 percent) or Latin America (24 percent). In 2010, by contrast, only about a quarter of all Catholics (24 percent) were in Europe. The largest share (39 percent) were in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Rapid growth has occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, which today is home to about 171 million Catholics (16 percent), up from an estimated 1 million (less than 1 percent) in 1910. There also has been rapid growth in the vast Asia-Pacific region, where 131 million Catholics (12 percent) now live, up from 14 million (5 percent) a century ago. North America’s share of the global Catholic population has increased more slowly, from about 15 million (5 percent) in 1910 to 89 million (8 percent) as of 2010.