Why has no pope ever taken the name Francis before? The most beloved of Christian saints, Francis of Assisi, was also one of the most radical. The 13th-century cleric’s embrace of the poor was a resounding repudiation of church decadence. Before he was named pope Wednesday, the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was already known for his simplicity, attachment to the poor, and resistance to the princely trappings of his high position. And in dedicating his pontificate to St. Francis, Bergoglio signaled the kind of pope he aims to be. That, at least, was a welcome sign, for the scandals that have wracked the church in recent years reveal a crisis at its core.
St. Francis’s life speaks to a capacity within the church for reform. His demands foreshadowed the challenge that Martin Luther posed 300 years later. Church leaders could well have condemned Francis as a heretic. Instead, his impulse was enshrined in the name of the Franciscans. Known for their pious devotedness and works of mercy, they are one of the church’s two greatest religious orders.
The other great order, the Jesuits, is known more for intellectual heft — the world’s great Catholic universities. Together, the two orders represent the two sides of the church’s brain. That Bergoglio is himself a Jesuit, who has now devoted himself to St. Francis, suggests the possible range of his pontificate.
At least as important as the new pope’s national background, doctrinal commitments, and personal temperament is the extraordinary outpouring of respectful global interest that greeted his election. Because of all that interest, Pope Francis — surprisingly — begins with a scope of potential influence that no other pontiff has ever had, and that may override whatever narrower purpose he might bring to his position.
For weeks, beginning with the surprising resignation of Benedict XVI, the world’s media were fixated on Rome. At work here was more than a fascination with the trappings of the world’s last high Renaissance court; a vast, mainly secular world seems to have found something of importance at stake in the Catholic drama. Is this because, despite all disenchantment, Christian religion, in the age of scientific materialism, still addresses some unmet — and perhaps unacknowledged — spiritual hunger?
This does not mean the new pope can simply redouble Catholicism’s self-touted program of “evangelization.” Far from it. The last thing the world needs is a mission from Rome, telling humans how wrong they’ve been to dismiss religion, especially the Catholic brand. No, the new pope’s unexpected opportunity depends on returning the respect that has come the church’s way from all directions. That means letting go of triumphal arrogance that sees enemies everywhere and, instead, dipping afresh into the two very currents that church leaders label as dangerous.
One current flows through nations of the North Atlantic and is labeled “secularization.” In fact, the secular mind, so often denigrated by clerics, has something to offer religious people: specifically, its suspicion of shallow images of God as, for instance, a grandfather on a throne. Furthermore, secularism has been at the heart of contemporary Europe’s humane repudiation of chauvinistic nationalism and state violence. The church can usefully plumb how such positive developments went hand in hand with the demise of faith.
The second current runs through the global South — “pentecostalism,” the deeply personal religious tradition that the lofty Vatican has defined as its great rival, especially in Pope Francis’s own Latin America. Pentecostalism is often spoken of as if synonymous with evangelical fundamentalism, which, with its biblical literalism and rejection of science, is indeed an enemy of rational faith. But enthusiastic pentecostalism, so clearly filling a religious need in the minds and hearts of millions, is not necessarily fundamentalist. Its deeply felt renditions of the Holy Spirit can be antidotes to the heartless chill of the dogmatism that has marked so much coming from Rome in recent years. The pope from Argentina is well-placed to learn from pentecostals.
The laser-beam focus on Catholic leadership has laid bare its ample flaws for all to see. But the resulting sense of disillusionment, ironically, may turn out to be the new pope’s greatest advantage. Church reform, transcending the old split between liberals and conservatives, is now a universally acknowledged need.
That Pope Francis has a record of strict adherence to conservative church teachings may not be decisive. The all-too-human hierarchy has removed the great obstacle to reform: the pretense that the church itself is sinless. The failings of the church, including disgraced priests, shamed bishops, and pressures that may have prompted the previous pope’s resignation, all solidify the ground of the new beginning. Change is mandatory.
Pope Francis, initiating change with his first act, seems to know that.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.