By Ted Braun
Last Wednesday, March 23, a remarkable event took place. The first non-European pontiff since the Middle Ages (and the first one from Latin America) was elected in a conclave of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. To everyone's surprise, in less than 24 hours the black smoke had been replaced by white.
The newly elected pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina, was also the first one to choose the name Francis. He related later that when his Brazilian friend, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, congratulated him, Hummes had said to him "Don't forget about the poor."
And that's how Bergoglio began thinking particularly about the example of St. Francis of Assisi. "St. Francis," he commented, "was the man of the poor. The man of peace. The man who loved and cared for creation—and in this moment we don't have such a great relationship with creation." He mentioned to journalists that he was immediately inspired to take the name of St. Francis, adding that he himself would like to see "a poor church and a church for the poor."
This wasn't such a far-fetched dream for the new pope. He was the son of middle-class Italian immigrants who had moved to Buenos Aires. As cardinal he had refused the luxuries that previous cardinals had enjoyed. Instead, he had lived in a simple apartment, cooked his own meals, rode a public bus to work, and regularly visited poor people in the slums. He had always considered social outreach, and not doctrinal battles, to be the essential focus of the church.
It is in this area of helping his church become more faithfully "a church for the poor," however, that Pope Francis will find his greatest challenge. In the past he has spoken about economic inequities in a profit-driven world, but the church has too often ended up concentrating on binding up the wounds of the wounded poor. Today those in poverty need more than compassionate almsgiving and charitable generosity. They need distributive justice and systematic approaches to the problem of poverty.
The liberation theology movement, originating in Latin America, has become a special point of contention in the Roman Catholic Church. Priests, theologians,and lay people have been active in this movement in recent years, focusing on gospel imperatives and the need for systemic change while working at the grassroots community level. They have been accused by the church hierarchy, however, for being more concerned about social practice than about the right teachings of the church. Both Benedict and Francis have been very critical of this movement.
Along these lines Pope Francis will find another major challenge in the current doctrinal battles taking place in the church. He supports the Vatican's conservative views on women's issues such as birth control and women's ordination. He has called both contraception and abortion part of a "culture of death," shown no tolerance for homosexuality, and described same-sex marriages as a "scheme to destroy God's plan."
One of the major problems confronting him is the current sexual scandal in the church's leadership. Here is where women as wives of priests and as priests themselves could be of great help to the patriarchal church. Since celibacy is considered a practice but not a doctrinal tenet, the Pope and the Curia, by making it optional, could provide an improved healthy environment for the church's leadership. And honor the precedent that the married apostle Peter provided the church.
One more positive step Pope Francis could take would be to begin working more closely with the Leadership Conference on Women Religious. Many of its members are already serving on the front lines of a "church for the poor." Sometime in the distant future there may be a time when women will have become full members of the church, and even some LCWR members will have become cardinals. And maybe, just maybe, there may be a time when the black smoke is replaced by smoke that is pink.