Since I hate to go out on a speculative limb, let me suggest this about the new pope: Francis may turn out to be the one person Roman Catholic cardinals could have chosen as pope who has the possibility of saving the church.
The reasons I think that are all symbolic, but they are important.
First, the name he chose. The new pope is -- or was -- Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Popes get to choose their own names and Bergoglio chose the name "Francis."
I assume that name was chosen in honor of St. Francis of Assisi (if I am wrong about that, I am wrong about everything else that follows). Francis of Assisi was an Italian nobleman who gave up all his wealth and possessions to be a wandering monk who served the poor.
He is best known for his "prayer," the one that begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of our peace. . ."
Bergoglio is the first pope to choose that name. That's understandable. If you have just been selected to lead a church of more than a billion people and to be considered the vicar of Christ, you don't really think in terms of wandering the streets in rags talking to beggars and little animals.
Second: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio refused to live in the mansion provided him. He moved to an apartment and he took the bus to work. He washed the feet of AIDS victims.
These are all symbolic gestures but that's what makes them important. A bishop -- and, of course, a pope -- are symbols of the people they lead. The image a bishop projects is the image the people will have of the church. In a deeper sense, the pope projects the image of Christ. Francis of Assisi is a good image to project.
Third: He is from Argentina. One of every four Catholics in the world is of Hispanic origin.
Now, politically, Pope Francis upholds traditional church teachings. It is not likely we will see woman priests during his tenure. It is not likely gays and lesbians will be welcomed as equals. From what I've read, he's fairly conservative.
But here's the thing: If the new pope is humble, if the new pope can express the views of the church modestly and treat seriously those who differ, then the voice of the church will also be taken seriously. People who will not listen to him just because of his office will be willing to engage with the symbol he projects.
Because, here's the other thing: Popes don't really have much power anymore. They have all kinds of pomp and all kinds of celebrity, but no one really has to do what he says. That's not just true of popes; it is true of most "powerful" leaders in the world. When you see President Obama inviting Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson to dinner, you see the limits of even great power.
The only real power a leader has is the power to persuade and the power to inspire.
It is, obviously, too early to tell. But, judging from his first moments as pope, Francis might just understand that.
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