Last week, U.S. Catholics got a reminder that although 48 percent of their church’s 1.2 billion members live in the Western Hemisphere, only one-fifth of those are North Americans.
Some 425 million other Catholics live in Central America, the Caribbean or South America, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
One of them, Jorge Bergoglio, is relocating to the Vatican under a newly assumed name: Pope Francis.
His elevation to the papacy matters for reasons that reach far beyond his vast and philosophically cleaved flock of traditionalists and modernists. In this nation and many others, Catholics and their institutions are the largest private providers of education, health care and charitable services. And whether the rest of us agree or disagree with its positions, the U.S. church is a rigorous voice on social issues.
In this new pope, U.S. Catholics have a leader who defies easy categories: He has lived simply in a Buenos Aires apartment, often riding public transit among fellow Argentines who have known him as “Father Jorge.”
Yet as one of the world’s 19,000 Jesuits — “God’s Marines,” with reputations for intellectual rigor and comfort with competing ideologies — he survived the Society of Jesus’ lengthy education and formation protocols. He has forcefully opposed abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and adoptions by gays, but also taught deep respect for gays and lesbians as children of God. He publicly embraced ministry to HIV patients, traveling to a hospice in 2001 to symbolically wash and kiss the feet of 12 AIDS patients.
His dedication to social justice may explain his selection of a papal name. Francis of Assisi, who died in 1226, is among Catholicism’s most revered saints. The son of a rich Italian merchant, St. Francis was inspired by a passage from the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus urges his followers to take no money, walking sticks or even shoes as they go forth to speak of God’s kingdom. Francis led a life of poverty; he and his community of fellow “lesser brothers” lived in a former lepers’ house near Assisi.
To the extent that Pope Francis focuses his church on root teachings about poverty and justice, he may leave some U.S. Catholics wondering what happened to their issues — the role of women in Catholicism, a push for (or against) liberalized doctrines, damaging effects from sexual abuse scandals, bureaucratic reform from the Vatican on down. His history suggests that, like Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, he’ll want a church true to its beliefs, not one that tailors principles to please those who disagree.
But who can predict that which the new pope himself may not yet know? All of us will watch together as yesterday’s Father Jorge steers tomorrow’s global church.
From the New Bern (North Carolina) Sun Journal