Meeting Pope Francis

First Things | Published on March 20, 2013

By George Weigel

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ROME–When Pope Francis stepped out onto the central loggia of St. Peter’s on the night of March 13, I thought of the man I had met in his Buenos Aires office ten months before: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., who was looking forward to laying down the burden of leadership and devoting himself to prayer, reflection and study.

Now, because Benedict XVI decided to renounce the Chair of Peter and do what Cardinal Bergoglio wanted to do, the old-school Argentine Jesuit is now Benedict’s successor. His acceptance of the cross that is the papacy was an act of humble obedience by a man who had bent his will to the divine will for over a half-century.

What kind of man is he? Some impressions from an hour’s conversation last May:

A man of God.The new pope struck me then as someone who lived from the inside out: a man whose rich interior life was the basis of his public life; a leader whose decisions grew from prayer and discernment, not calculation.

A man of profound humility. I had long been interested in getting to know then-Cardinal Bergoglio, but I had the hardest time getting him to talk about his own life and experiences. I didn’t detect shyness in this, or false modesty, but a true evangelical humility. Pope Francis will not have the effervescence of a John Paul II; but like the Polish pope who created him cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio has spent his life saying, not “Look at me,” but rather, “Look to Jesus Christ.”

A man of keen and realistic intelligence. Pope Francis is not the university professor that John Paul II and Benedict XVI had been in their pre-papal lives. And while that model of preparing for the papacy served the Church well for thirty-five years, it’s not the only possible model. Now, rather than a professor who learned how to be a pastor, the Church has been given a pastor who has long experience of being a pastor.

Nonetheless, I was struck last May by Bergoglio’s sharp mind, his familiarity with issues throughout the world Church, and his prudence in judging people and situations. He was, for example, completely realistic and lucid about the Church’s situation in Latin America. Rather than complaining about Evangelical Protestant “sheep-rustling,” as more than a few Latin American churchmen do, the archbishop spoke with insight and conviction about the imperative of Catholicism rediscovering the power of the gospel through personal conversion to Jesus Christ.

A man of the New Evangelization. The new pope played a significant role in shaping the Latin American bishops’ 2007 “Aparecida Document,” which embraced the New Evangelization and put it at the center of the Church’s life. In our conversation, the man who would become pope made clear his understanding that a kept Church — “kept” in the sense of legal establishment, cultural habit, or both — had no future in the twenty-first-century West, given the acids of secularism. Pope Francis is a man, I conclude, who intends to go on evangelical offense: It will be all gospel, all proposal, all evangelism, all the time.

A man of reform. We spoke of the Latin American edition of my book The Courage To Be Catholic, for which he thanked me. And in discussing Vatican affairs, then-Cardinal Bergoglio displayed a shrewd, but not cynical, grasp of just what was wrong with the Church’s central bureaucratic machinery, and why. Thus I think we can expect the new pope to lead the Church in a purification and renewal of the episcopate, the priesthood, the religious life, and the Curia, because he understands that scandal, corruption, and incompetence are impediments to the gospel-centered mission I describe in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church.

A man of freedom rightly understood. In addition to Pope Francis’ lifetime commitment to the poor I’d also note his commitment to human rights and democracy, both of which are under severe pressure in Argentina. The new pope knows the fragility of democratic self-governance, and will work to shore up democracy’s eroding moral-cultural foundations throughout the West.

Habemus papam. Thanks be to God.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.