Symposium discusses how the First Non-European Pope brings the poor and marginalized to the attention of the world
“It’s been a good year for Argentines. The Queen of the Netherlands is Argentinian; Messi is said to be the best soccer player in the world; and now el Papa es Francisco,” said Anna Bonta Moreland—born in Argentina and now Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities at Villanova University—to an audience of over 250 in Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago.
Moreland spoke at a symposium sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute and the Center for Latin American Studies on “Pope Francis: First Pope from The Americas,” along with Fr. Brian Daley, S.J., Catherine F. Huisking Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, and R.R. Reno, editor of the ecumenical journal First Things.
The South American hemisphere has indeed received a great deal of attention since the March 13th election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first Pope outside of Europe.
“Argentine jokes immediately began to fly,” Moreland said.
“It’s already evident that this Pope is a very humble man,” said one of Moreland’s friends upon hearing the news that Bergoglio would be Pope Francis, “because any other Argentine would have chosen Jesus II as his name.”
But perhaps what has most captured the world’s attention about the charismatic Pope from Latin America is his “acute sense of responsibility toward the poor and vulnerable among us.”
Moreland shared how as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio talked and ate with the inhabitants of the slums and shanty towns at the margins of the city. When a young priest asked him if he should wear a cassock, Bergoglio responded, “the question is not whether you put it on, it’s whether you are willing to roll up your sleeves for others.”
Championing a theology of encounter, Pope Francis has urged the contented and complacent to reach outside their comfort zone. When working with the poor, when coming face to face with any child of God, Francis has said: “If you don’t look them in the eyes, if you don’t touch them, you haven’t encountered them.”
Some could argue that Pope Francis’ concern for the poor flows from his Jesuit spirituality.
Fr. Brian Daley, S.J.—who was in Rome giving lectures at the Pontifical Oriental Institute when the bells of the Sistine Chapel announced that the Cardinals had reached a decision—said that he’s already participated in quite a few panels on Pope Francis, “because I am a Jesuit and people think…I have the answers. I don’t,” he laughed.
Francis—as befits his name—is known for his humility. “The Spiritual Exercises emphasizes humility as the central virtue of the Christian,” Daley said. “Self-emptying is central to the spirituality of Jesuits.”
Because he embraced a spirituality where one ought never to seek the glories of the world, Daley admitted that many of his fellow Jesuits were astonished to learn that Bergoglio had become pontiff. “Jesuits have always been brought up to believe there would never be a Jesuit Pope. To be bishop or Pope? That’s not what we do. Jesuits should refuse office—and only accept it by Holy obedience.”
Related in many ways to his Jesuit identity, Daley agreed that what has been most striking and unusual about Francis in the first months of his papacy is his “unstuffiness, his insistence on being a servant of the poor.”
During his years of ministry in Buenos Aires, his encounters with ordinary people transformed his way of thinking about himself.
One priest of the slums estimated that in eighteen years Bergoglio must have talked to half of the inhabitants of the shanty towns.
He would wander the alleyways, chat with the locals, drink maté with them.
“It is when we are involved with ministry that we discover who we are,” Bergoglio had said.
Such a mentality gave him a certain allergy to elitism, Daley said. He had a reputation for being anti-academic, for being suspicious of any kind of theorist who claimed to have all the answers to the ills of society. He disliked abstract ideologies that did not correspond to reality; he was wary of the modern way of constantly seeking out the experts. Being the archbishop of a large and sophisticated middle class city, he enjoyed reaching out to simple people.
Consequently, Bergoglio expressed his views to those who think that formulas can provide answers. Daley shared that when an economist from the United States travelled to Buenos Aires, met with Cardinal Bergoglio, and explained his profession, the Cardinal replied, “wouldn’t it be better if you were doing some kind of ministry?”
The American was stunned. What could the Cardinal have meant? Did he really think academic qualifications superfluous?
Though people are impressed by the Pope’s emphasis on a new set of priorities, his approach can initially be jarring. R.R. Reno—in the final presentation of the evening—reflected on the American response to the new Pope.
Reno maintained that Francis is truly speaking on behalf of the developing world. “He has never been to the United States. He is not U.S.-focused. He is concerned about development and poverty, problems that face the developing world—problems that face South America, Asia, and Africa.”
“It’s not about us,” Reno said simply.
Not only is Pope Francis highlighting a different set of concerns, he also belongs to a different generation. Whereas John Paul II and Benedict XVI were formed decisively by the great trauma of the twentieth century, World War II, Bergoglio came of age during the Dirty War of the 1970s where the battle lines weren’t as clear, where he could say amidst all the fighting on either side, “my ministry is to find good and make it increase.”
Reno agreed with both Moreland and Daley that the Argentine Pope has charmed the world with his unstuffiness, his simplicity. “He has a charism of immediacy, of presence,” Reno said. With Francis, you know that you are “not dealing with an American politician. With what is characteristic of Jesuit spirituality, he trusts himself to speak with integrity about the faith. He can focus on the one thing that his needful.”
As Daley earlier shared—what is needful is what has animated Bergoglio’s ministry and faith since the age of seventeen when he heard the call of the priesthood in the confessional:
“I seek Jesus; I serve Jesus because he sought me first, because I was conquered by Him. That is the heart of my experience.”