One year ago this month, the College of Cardinals elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the pope of the Roman Catholic Church. The act itself was momentous. Bergoglio was the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years and the first from the Americas. He also was the first Jesuit pope. Jesuits have a history as defenders of the Catholic faith — missionaries who are willing to engage the world in both spiritual and temporal terms.
But, one year on, the historic nature of his selection seems trivial compared to what he has accomplished in rhetorical tone and personal example. Pope Francis promises to be a different kind of pope, one that may herald a resurgence for the Catholic Church.
First, the new pope took the name of Francis after Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscans and was known for eschewing wealth, practicing humility, and his commitment to preaching a simple gospel of Christ. Interestingly, Francis of Assisi never held clerical office in the Catholic Church. Instead, he was a brother who founded a set of orders emphasizing poverty, sacrifice and repentance.
Pope Francis has sought to humanize the papacy and help Catholics understand the pope as a human being rather than someone who deserves an exalted status. He told an Italian newspaper that “to depict the pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, seems offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone else, a normal person.”
His actions conform to his words. He chose not to live in the palatial chambers of past popes and instead resides in a small apartment he took when he was part of last year’s conclave of cardinals selecting a new pope. By doing so, he can mingle with others rather than be isolated in the papal palace.
He also has demonstrated his own preference for a more Spartan lifestyle than the opulence associated with the papal palace. He abandoned the popemobile favored by his predecessors for less ostentatious transportation. At first he was driven in a Ford Focus, but now he drives himself around in a 1984 Renault. With a smaller car, Pope Francis is less distant from those who gather to see him.
Pope Francis also has bypassed the Vatican Curia, the bureaucracy that directs the church from Rome, by appointing eight cardinals to be his own counselors advising him on church matters. Initially, he directed them to recommend reform of the Curia, although their role is wider than that. But that reform, such as streamlining the bureaucracy, better management of financial matters and reducing the infighting, may be only one of their tasks in Pope Francis’ papacy.
Another change Pope Francis has wrought is in the treatment of social issues. He has condemned the “throwaway culture” that characterizes legalized abortion and also reiterated the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. However, while the new pope adheres to traditional Catholic doctrine on abortion and same-sex marriage, he has said that the Catholic Church should not dwell on these issues but be broader in the messages it sends to the world.
And Pope Francis has reiterated the message of love towards those who are gay. He commented that “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?” This statement suggests Pope Francis may be open to greater spiritual understanding of the issues faced by gay Catholics.
Perhaps Pope Francis’ most dedicated mission is to improve the life of the poor. He has criticized the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the accumulation of wealth. He has stated: “The gospel condemns the cult of well-being” and that “he who keeps his granary full of his own selfishness, the Lord, in the end, will present him with the bill.”
In one year, Pope Francis has transformed the papacy and redirected the Catholic Church through his personal example. It is a dramatic start for what promises to be a transformative papacy.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.