It’s all in the name. When Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli chose the name John XXIII on his election in 1958, he did so in great part because he admired the previous John—the XXII—because he continued the papacy in France, and Roncalli, former Vatican ambassador to the “eldest daughter of the church,” was a devoted Francophile. And just think of the French periti who would shape the Ecumenical Council he would call: Congar, de Lubac, Chenu, Danielou, etc.
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope on March 13, 2013, he chose to be known as Francis. The first of many firsts that have come to define the Bergoglio papacy, he knew that by choosing a name foreign to the annals of papal names, he was breaking with convention, just as Albino Luciani and Karol Wojtyla had done when they chose the double-barrelled John Paul. He knew that he needed to explain why Francis and he did so at a large gathering of journalists three days after the conclave that elected him, demonstrating his own comfort level with the media, his preference for transparency over speculation, and his resolve to embrace the legacy, and not only the name, of Il Poverello, the Poor One of Assisi: “For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who protects creation. . . .How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor.”
Working toward creating a church of and for the poor has proven to be a titanic task for Francis. Bishops and cardinals accustomed to fine living, sumptuous housing, and the perks and privileges ratified by centuries of convention, were stunned to discover that the newly elected pope from Argentina preferred a stripped-down papacy: not for him the Apostolic Palace but the comparatively simple digs of the Casa Santa Marta. Protocol was streamlined, the princely dignities of office much modified.
By taking the name of Francis, Bergoglio signaled his intention to direct the church in new ways and to do so from the very beginning of his Petrine ministry. This first Jesuit pope elected to travel to Lampedusa, an island off the southwest coast of Italy, to visit the migrants from north Africa who had braved unsteady seas to escape tyranny, war and poverty. These are the ones he is called to serve. This was a first. Previous popes on their inaugural trips outside the Vatican went to their homeland—Poland and Germany—but Francis, to the dismay of his officials, opted for Lampedusa and sent a message to the world.
This trip wasn’t a photo op, a media ploy, or a dramatic papal visit to territory distant from Vatican concerns. On the contrary, the gesture was a visually arresting pilgrimage to the peripheries and therefore a key component of the Francis agenda. Throughout his papacy, Francis repeatedly underscores the role of the peripheries—geographical, political, economic, cultural and theological—that must be the focus of the center. For too long those on the margins have been made to feel either alienated or of secondary concern. No longer. The peripheries have moved to the center of the pope’s priorities.
From the outset, many in head office—the Roman Curia—sensed that their new boss was not going to follow established ways, would opt for spontaneity over script, would shuffle things around and make, as he urged Catholic youth to do, a mess.
Think again of John XXIII: he was a great shuffler of curial staff, astonished his aides and attendant cardinals with his smiles, wit, unpredictability and sweet, if startling, spontaneity. He often appeared to the suave and sophisticated members of his court as a bit of a bumpkin. He was anything but: he was a serious church historian; philosemitic when many others were the opposite; a polyglot; a seasoned diplomat negotiating in dangerous and complex circumstances; and a man of great tenacity. He brought about the Council in the face of stiff, if undemonstrative, resistance from the Roman Curia.
When Bergoglio’s old friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a fellow Argentine, scientist and the leading Jewish figure in the country, was asked about the growing perception in conservative Catholic circles that Francis was out of his depth in the Vatican, that he would be sidelined by the Curia, that his ambitions for change would be squandered by internal disputes, and that he would be dismissed as a lightweight by the old guard keen on securing a deferential continuity with the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies, the rabbi thundered, “They don’t know my Jorge.”
But they have come to know Jorge very quickly. When Benedict XVI resigned as pope, it was clear to the cardinal-electors that his successor would need to reign in a Curia out of control, handle the spiraling morale issue around the many scandals—venal and venereal—swirling about the Vatican’s many offices and deal with a Catholic hierarchy unhappy with decades of centralized management. No easy feat, but Bergoglio’s candidacy provided a light at the end of the tunnel. He was not implicated in any Vatican dysfunction, was unfamiliar with the Roman manner of doing things and was disinclined by temperament to adjust to it. He was a fresh face, and he would unsettle the status quo.
Just like Roncalli, he was seriously underestimated. The peasant pope would alter the face of the church in the modern world, and no one saw it coming, apart from his trusted confidant Loris Capovilla, and the Argentine pope would bring the contemporary church to a new, if unsettling, threshold of reform in and by the Spirit.
Michael W. Higgins is a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. Next year, his book on the Bergoglio papacy, “The Jesuit Disruptor: Francis Takes on His Church” and his book on the upcoming Synod, “The 30 Days that Shook the Church: The Synod on Synodality”, will both be published.