by Piet Coetzer

Pope of firsts

Francis brings new ways – but his past also pops up

Roman Catholic Church of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina as Pope Francis
Jorge Mario Bergoglio.jpg

Today, 19 March 2013, marks the formal installation and ascension to the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina as Pope Francis. He has already chalked up some ‘firsts’ in church history, most notably as the first pope from outside Europe – but events from his past have stolen some of the limelight. 

On the lighter side, there was the news of a childhood sweetheart, who claimed Bergoglio had become a priest after she had been forced to refuse his offer of marriage.

Less innocent was the news that in 2005, a human rights lawyer filed a criminal suit against Pope Francis, accusing him of conspiring with the then military junta in the 1976 kidnapping of two Jesuit priests.

Bergoglio, who at the time was the ‘provincial’ for the Society of Jesus, allegedly ordered two ‘leftist’ Jesuit priests “to leave their pastoral work”, following divisions within the Society of Jesus over the role of the Catholic Church and its relations with the military junta.

Last week, the Vatican issued a statement, claiming the allegations were baseless and defamatory. A Vatican spokesperson said the accusations were part of a “left-wing, anticlerical” conspiracy, adding that the charges were “clearly and firmly denied” by the Holy See.

But that was not the only political controversy to rear its head. United Kingdom prime minister David Cameron publicly clashed with the new pope over the Argentine pontiff’s claim that Britain had “usurped” the Falkland Islands. The former archbishop of Buenos Aires has previously described the disputed territory as belonging to “the homeland” of Argentina.

However, during a press conference at the European Council summit in Brussels, Camerontold Pope Francis he should “respect” the islanders’ overwhelming referendum vote for the Falklands to remain British. In a clear reference to the election process at the Vatican, he jokingly said that “the white smoke over the Falklands was pretty clear”.

One of the more important elements of the election of the first pope from outside Europe is that it reflects the fact that the church’s fortunes are dwindling on that continent, while its influence in other parts of the world, including Africa, seems to be growing. Even in the UK there are claims that while numbers in the Church of England dwindle, the Catholic Church is growing.

The Pontiff, in what could become a hallmark of his tenure, has already begun refusing some of the luxuries and privileges that come with the job.

An indication that modern technology might have started to impact on the tight secrecy under which the church has been operating for centuries, is the fact that on Friday last week, after an audience with senior prelates, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles tweeted his impression to the outside world: "At our meeting today with Pope Francis, I noted that [he] is still wearing his older black shoes. I pray that he keeps them as a sign for us all." 

It is an interesting fact of history that new Pope Francis has become the first since the year 913 to choose a name not used by a predecessor. If a future pope should choose the name ‘Francis’, Bergoglio would then become known as ‘Francis I’.

The man who started the tradition of using the same name as a previous pope was Mercurius in the 6th century. Rather than taking the papacy with the “inappropriate name of a pagan god”, he chose ‘John II’.

The last cardinal to choose a ‘unique’ name was Landus, who reigned for only six months during the 10th century in a period known as the saeculum obscurum (the dark age) when the papacy was in complete decline.

More recently, Albino Luciani combined two familiar names for popes, taking the unused name of ‘John Paul I’ for what would be a short-lived 33-day papacy in 1978.

Considering the numerous controversies around the Catholic Church and the conduct of many of its officials, plus the political baggage he has brought to the papacy, there may be more symbolism in his choice of the humbleness implied by ‘Francis’ than Bergoglio has bargained for.


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