Wednesday, March 13, 2013

HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM: Popetastic conclavular 2013 ends with a surprise win for Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio

By Michael J.W. Stickings

A surprise pick: Jorge Mario Bergoglio becomes Pope Francis

Okay, so I was wrong.

Wrong about Marc Ouellet winning the big prize, then, having doubts earlier today, about Angelo Scola taking it. But I was right about the white smoke coming today -- even though a conclave with no clear frontrunner could have been expected to go longer -- and when it did, after just five ballots, I really did think it was Scola, whose election, as experts like John Allen were saying, would have been a vote for continuity, as he's an orthodox thinker in the mold of Ratzinger/Benedict (if more personable), and so a fairly safe pick at a time of crisis and uncertainty throughout the Church.

But if not Ouellet or Scola, then maybe one of other leading non-Europeans like Peter Turkson or Odilo Scherer, or maybe even an American, Sean O'Malley.

And so when Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the senior cardinal deacon, appeared on the balcony at St. Peter's to say (in Latin) those famous two words -- habemus papam -- and announce the name of the new pope, and I heard the name Bergoglio, I was surprised, to say the least. Who? What? Bergoglio? That guy? Really?

Yes, that guy.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a leading contender, one of the top papabili, last time around, and it's been reported, the mysterious proceedings of the conclave springing a leak, that he finished a strong second to Ratzinger.

And, sure, he has a few things going for him: He's Latin American (and I thought the cardinals would look to Latin America before Africa for a non-European, and perhaps even before North America). He has extensive pastoral experience. And for a Church sagging under the weight of massive scandals, he is nothing if not a breath of fresh air, at least in terms of style.

But -- and here's why I didn't consider him a serious contender (and why he was 33-1 at Paddy Power and so nowhere near the top) -- he's a Jesuit (and there's never been a Jesuit pope before), there were, or at least appeared to be, more appealing Latin American candidates (like Scherer), and he's 76 years old (quite a bit older than what most Vatican watchers were expecting in the successor to Benedict -- but see this persuasive piece from Nate Silver about how his age may actually have helped him).

Maybe we'll learn more about what transpired in the Sistine Chapel, and how Bergoglio won, but for now we know nothing other than that the cardinals picked a respected member of the club who almost won in 2005. I'll let the experts try to figure out what his win means, and what his papacy will bring. I would just note that in selecting a Latin American Jesuit who took the name Francis, the first pope to do so, the cardinals seem to be signalling that they want the Church to go back to its pastoral roots.

In that sense, Bergoglio is a populist choice. Yes, he's deeply, ardently conservative. Don't forget that. There was no chance anyone with progressive leanings was going to win. On the key wedge issues of the day, like abortion and homosexuality, this guy's solidly on the right, so much so that he earned the rebuke of Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for his views on gay adoption. But he's a humble man, it would seem (and he seemed humble on the balcony, in his first appearance as pope), a man of humility, a man who prefers a simple lifestyle (he cooks his own meals, we were told over and over again) to the pomp and circumstance of the Vatican.

Yes, Pope Francis. The name means a lot. As a Jesuit, he could have gone with Ignatius, a reference to the founder of that order, Ignatius of Loyola, but instead he want with Francis, a reference not to Francis Xavier, Ignatius's student and one of the first Jesuits, but to St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order and a preacher who dediciated himself to a life of poverty. (Interestingly, he is the patron saint of animals and the environment, as well as one of the two patron saints of Italy, along with Catherine of Siena.)

The theology is conservative, as are the political views, as expected, but the style is a radical departure from Benedict. It's not clear to me how this will manifest itself, but it would seem that he will focus on trying to revive the core principles of Jesus's teachings, stripped of the worldly excesses of the bloated Church. Maybe this is how the cardinals, the Church's core leadership, want to respond to the current crises -- not with academics along the lines of what Scola would have brought to the position but with an appeal to the basics.

Or maybe they just like the guy, or maybe he won a deeply divided conclave, and maybe there was a lot of dissent, and maybe he'll just be a figurehead while the establishment Curia continues to run the Vatican as usual, and maybe he'll do nothing about rampant sex abuse and the whole Vatileaks scandal. Who knows?

I'm just a curious onlooker. I'm not Catholic, and indeed I find most of Catholicism, like I find most of Christianity, and most organized religion generally, utterly reprehensible. I'm a liberal, and a secularist, and I believe in Enlightenment, and, in a way, I'd like to see the Church implode from within. I have no interest in the Church fixing any of its myriad problems.

But there's no denying the importance of this position, the papacy, and I just love the theater of it all. I would have liked to have seen the Canadian Ouellet win, or a (relative) progressive (of the other leading contenders I suppose I like Austria's Christoph Schönborn the most, from what I know of them), but at the same time I don't mind the Church remaining hardline conservative and therefore contuining to lose relevance in a world that increasingly rejects its authoritarian medievalism.

Whatever. We move on. It's Pope Francis for now, and while I suppose I admire his Franciscan leanings I'm sure I'll find most of what he does and says to be objectionable in one way or another.

But what great theater. And if you're already looking ahead to the next papal election, because like me you're into the election far more than the governance, you can find the odds for Francis's possible successors at Paddy Power, with some familiar names topping the list: Scola, Turkson, Schönborn, O'Malley, Ouellet.

Ah, what fun. I really was excited this afternoon, watching the Vatican smoke cam on my computer, then waiting for the smoke at 2 pm ET. Actually, it's pretty crazy how into it I was. And I'm actually disappointed it's over.

"HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM," came the tweet from Pontifex, the pope's official account. Yes, after all the drama, after all the speculation, after all the waiting, after all the excitement, it all came down to those three simple words.

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