March 17, 2013
John 12:1-8Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? – (Isaiah 43:19)
When heard that there was white smoke issuing from the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new Pope, I thought, “Oh Lord, please let them do something different this time.” I wasn’t expecting a miracle, just maybe someone under the age of 60. Or someone from somewhere other than Italy or Germany. I saw a fluttering of the curtains on the balcony windows by St. Peter’s Square. I sent my Catholic knitting mentor a Facebook message: “The suspense is killing me!!” She agreed.
Then the doors opened and the proclamation was issued “Habemus Papam!” (“We have a Pope!”). On the TV screen, the message flashed “Cardinal Jorge Mario Borgogolio from Argentina elected Pope. Chooses the name Francis I”. I just about fell out of my chair. I sent a message to my Catholic friend: “Oh my God, IT’S THE ARGENTINIAN!! We have a Latin American Pope!! Awesome!!” Yes, I am technically not a Catholic any more, and do not recognize the authority of the Pope … but old habits die hard. For the next two hours, I was – along with many other parts of the world – on a high. According to one tweet, the Italian journalists were weeping with joy. In Argentina, another enthusiastic watcher tweeted to soccer rival Brazil: “Hey Brazil! Hey Brazil! We have the Pope – you can keep Pélé!”
The election of a Latin American Pope signals a massive shift in focus for the Roman Catholic Church. For centuries, it seemed as though only Europeans (mostly Italians) had any chance at the Papacy. Demographics, however, have eroded the notion of a predominantly European Catholic Church. As you can see in the map to the right, only 27% of the world’s Catholics currently reside in Europe. The greatest percentage by far (42%) are in Latin America. The election of a Latin American Pope is an acknowledgement by a European-dominated institution that the global center of gravity has finally shifted elsewhere. Hopefully, as a result, global attention (and ultimately global resources) will begin to shift to the “global South” as well. At a meeting of Latin American Bishops in 2007, then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio stated “[w]e live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most, yet reduced misery the least” and that “[t]he unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers” (National Catholic Reporter).
The Hebrew Bible reading for today speaks likewise of momentous change for the people that YHWH has chosen. The passage from “Second Isaiah” (to the Israelite captives in Babylon) gives a message of hope and renewal for people who have seen their land decimated by foreign occupation:… I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise (Isaiah 42:20).
The commentary in the Discipleship Study Bible (NRSV, 2008) states “These themes of liberation from old ways and the forward look to the new thing remain vital resources to people of faith today as they seek to build a better world” (991). That statement is certainly true for the faithful in Latin America.
Lest I be accused of wearing rose-colored glasses, I am certainly aware of the current Pope’s vitriolic stance on Gay marriage in Argentina (which was legalized there in 2010), which he characterized as “a move by the father of lies to confuse and deceive the children of God” (“Pope Francis, Argentina’s President Kirchner have a history of contentious battles“, NBC Latino). I am also aware of accusations in the press regarding his ambivalent role in the Argentinian “Dirty Wars” in the 70s and 80s, where over 30,000 people were murdered by the military junta. However, there are far more reports of Bergoglio’s humility and humanity during his tenure in Argentina, living in a small apartment, cooking his own food and taking a bus in to work every day, and washing the feet of AIDS patients in 2001. In recent comments regarding why he chose the name Francis, the new Pope said “Francis of Assisi, for me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects others” and also “Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and [a Church] for the poor” (“Pope Francis wants the Church to be poor, and for the poor” Reuters).
I think the Roman Catholic Church and God are both beginning a new thing on a grand scale. Even the mere fact that parts of the world that had no clue about Argentina are now familiar with its politics speaks clearly of the change that this new Pope is causing. And change, let us not forget, has a way of gaining momentum …