I was really surprised yesterday evening when I heard the announcement that Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected as the new Pope and that he had taken the name of Francis. The Cardinal had not figured in any of the pundit short lists, and even though I had been to Buenos Aires a few times I do not remember ever having seen him or heard his name.
When the new Pope appeared on the balcony overlooking the Piazza San Pietro I thought he looked uncomfortable, almost apologetic as if to say, “I’m here not because I want to be here but only because they elected me”. What followed left me with the feeling, “I really do not know this man, but I like what I saw and heard”.
What impressed me more than anything else was when Pope Francis, before imparting the Papal blessing to Rome and to the world, asked the people to pray for him. The new Pope made a profound bow to the assembled people, and more than 100,000 people maintained a solemn silence for about 20 seconds while they prayed for Francis the Pope.
That simple gesture gave me hope that perhaps now we have a Pope who recognizes the enormous power and talent in the faithful Catholic laity who constitute more than 99% of the Church membership. This is in keeping with the Second Vatican Council which in many ways sought to empower the laity to take an active part in the life and governance of their Church.
Church authorities have been slow to fulfill the decisions of Vatican II in regard to sharing power with the laity. In fact the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that only the clergy are qualified to participate in the governance of the Church (Canon 129). Pope Francis’ humble gesture of respect towards the people raises the hope that he will be willing to engage the enormous talent and power of the Catholic laity at all levels of decision-making in the Church.
Pope Francis comes to the Papacy with the reputation of a man who is like his divine Master in his love of the poor and his caring for them. He lives a simple life in which there is no place for pomp and ceremony or the princely trappings of medieval finery. I think we have every reason to hope that he will bring to the Papacy that same simplicity of life and dedication to the poor.
I am willing to believe that Pope Francis is the kind of Pope the Church needs at this time. I want to believe that he will teach us by word and example that the Church is the Church of all God’s people, not just of the Cardinals and the clergy. I pray that he will be an instrument of God in helping the Church to become what she is meant to be, a loving mother to her children, and a living example to the whole world of God’s love for all humanity.
Just a week before Pope Benedict made the surprise announcement of his imminent abdication there was an article in the New York Times about voters and elections. The writer, Sam Wang, an associate professor at Princeton University, pointed out that in the 2012 elections for the United States House of Representatives, the candidates of the Democratic Party received 1.4 million more votes than the candidates of the Republican Party. Yet the Republicans won control of the House by 234 seats to 201.
This undemocratic result comes from the party in power arranging electoral districts so that their party will have narrow victories in many districts while the other party will have large victories in fewer districts. Such an arrangement of electoral districts is known as gerrymandering, and it frustrates the democratic system.
As Catholics we are often reminded by our religious authorities that the Catholic Church is not a democracy. Yet in many ways the Church does act democratically. In the Vatican II Council for instance, the bishops arrived at final decisions by a system of majority voting. In the coming Conclave in Rome to name the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, the new Pope will be the candidate who receives two-thirds of the Cardinals’ votes.
But there are some who question if the Conclave Cardinals are really representative of the international character of the Catholic Church in today’s world. At the beginning of last year Pope Benedict named 22 new Cardinals. 16 were from Europe, 3 from North America, 1 from Latin America and 2 from Asia. Many were surprised at the strong European and Western presence in these nominations, when more than half the Catholics in the world are now living in Africa, Asia and Latin America, according to the statistics in the 2012 Vatican Yearbook.
Towards the end of 2012 Pope Benedict called an extraordinary Consistory to name 6 more Cardinals, none of them from Europe. One was from North America, 1 from Latin America, 3 from Asia and 1 from Africa. It seemed like a gesture from the Pope to compensate for the imbalance of the earlier Consistory.
But it was a feeble gesture and the total picture of the Cardinals in the Church is still one of gross imbalance. Latin America, Africa and Asia have a total of 797 million Catholics, or 68.2% of Catholics in the world. Between them they have 41 Cardinals. Europe and North America have a total of 76 voting Cardinals while they account for just 363 million Catholics, or 31% of world Catholics. Oceania accounts for about 9 million Catholics, 0.9 % of the world total. They have 1 Cardinal.
Maybe the Church will decide some day to choose the Pope by drawing lots, as the Apostles did in replacing Judas (Acts 1, 26). But until that day comes, the growing millions of Catholics who live in the vibrant churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America deserve a proportionate voice in deciding who is best qualified to lead their Church on earth now and in the future.