Bergoglio’s Gig, Part 1

Before he was elected pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had an opportunity to address the cardinals of the conclave. The WSJ relates the long-term vision he provided regarding “the future of the church”:

Cardinal Bergoglio, however, wanted to talk about the elephant in the room: the long-term future of the church and its recent history of failure. From its start, Pope Benedict’s papacy had been focused on reinforcing Catholicism’s identity, particularly in Europe, its historic home. Amid a collapse of the church’s influence and following in Europe, the German pontiff had called on Catholics to hunker down and cultivate a “creative minority” whose embrace of doctrine was sound enough to resist the pull of secular trends across the continent. That message, however, had been overshadowed by the explosion of sexual-abuse allegations across Europe and rampant infighting in the Vatican ranks.

The notes on Cardinal Bergoglio’s sheet were written in his native Spanish. And he could easily have delivered the remarks in Spanish—19 of the cardinals voting in the conclave came from Spanish-speaking countries and a team of Vatican translators was on hand to provide simultaneous translations in at least four other languages.

But he spoke in Italian, the language cardinals most commonly use inside Vatican City and the native tongue of Italy’s 28 voting-age cardinals, the most of any single nation. He wanted to be understood, loud and clear. The leaders of the Catholic Church, our very selves, Cardinal Bergoglio warned, had become too focused on its inner life. The church was navel-gazing. The church was too self-referential.

“When the church is self-referential,” he said, “inadvertently, she believes she has her own light; she ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very serious evil, spiritual worldliness.”

Roman Catholicism, he said, needed to shift its focus outward, to the world beyond Vatican City walls, to the outside. The new pope “must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the church to go out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

The word he used, periferia in Italian, literally translates into “the periphery” or “the edge.” But to Italian ears, periferia is also a term loaded with heavy socioeconomic connotations. It is on the periphery of Italian cities, and most European ones, that the working-class poor live, many of them immigrants. The core mission of the church wasn’t self-examination, the cardinal said. It was getting in touch with the everyday problems of a global flock, most of whom were battling poverty and the indignities of socioeconomic injustice.

German Cardinals Reinhard Marx of Munich and Walter Kasper, an old Vatican hand, perked up. So did Cardinals Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima and Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino of Havana, who promptly asked the pope for the notes of his address. For days they had heard speeches about “new evangelization,” a term from past popes that many cardinals used to honor their memory while disagreeing over what it meant. Suddenly, they were hearing someone speak about justice, human dignity. And it was simple, clear, refreshing.

“He speaks in a very straightforward way,” said Cardinal George. “And so perhaps—more than the content—it was simply a reminder that here is someone who has authenticity in such a way that he’s a wonderful witness to the discipleship.”

To Cardinal Cipriani Thorne of Lima, Peru, the address was vintage Bergoglio. For years, the Peruvian had heard his fellow Latin American cardinal deliver similar remarks. And like those earlier speeches, his message to the General Congregation walked a very fine line. Many cardinals, including Cipriani Thorne, were stern opponents of any rhetoric that appeared to invite class warfare. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had reined in liberation theology, the teachings of Latin American priests who embraced Marxism, and churchmen like Cipriani Thorne had supported the crackdown. But Cardinal Bergoglio’s message to cardinals deftly sidestepped those ideological pitfalls by grounding his message in a call to model the modern church on the humility of its origins.

“He’s not relating this to ideology, to let’s say, rich against poor,” Cardinal Cipriani Thorne said. “No, no, nothing like that. He’s saying that Jesus himself brought us to this world to be poor—to not have this excessive consumerism, this great difference between rich and poor.”

What many thought Cardinal Bergoglio was offering the church—after a decade of struggling to overcome the sexual-abuse crisis and years of internal bickering over issues like the liturgy—was a new narrative. He was telling a story of modern Catholicism that focused less on its complex inner workings and more on its outreach to those most in need.

“We’ve been arguing intra-ecclesia,” Cardinal Cipriani Thorne said. Cardinal Bergoglio’s speech was a call to stop “messing around” and “get to the point: It’s Jesus.”

What is his long-term vision for the church? I’ll have more to say about it in the installment, Lord willing.

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One Response to Bergoglio’s Gig, Part 1

  1. Although I respect Pope Frances and what his intentions are, I can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t connect socioeconomic problems with people having more children than they have the financial capability to support or the physical and emotional strength to nurture. The Catholic Church’s continued stance against birth control flies in the face of the reality of reaching out to the disenfranchised, who are also mostly ignorant and most likely to follow the Church’s teaching without question. More educated, socioeconomically advanced Catholics obviously ignore this rule.

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