The Humble Pope

National Review | Published on April 8, 2013

By George Weigel

Print Friendly


Rome – Twenty-first-century ecclesiastical heraldry may strike some as an arcane hangover from a long-gone past, when bishops were lords temporal as well as lords spiritual. Still, the rich vocabulary of heraldic symbolism adds a little class to a world of Twitter hashtags, and the mottoes that Catholic bishops — and popes — choose for their coats of arms can provide important clues about their character and formation. John Paul II’s “Totus tuus” (Entirely yours), as well as the composition of his stemma papale (a large “M” beneath a gold cross on a blue field), spoke volumes about his Marian piety and his conviction that his life was guided and protected by the Mother of the Church. Benedict XVI’s rather complex coat of arms was a nightmare for the Vatican gardeners who maintain a floral representation of the reigning pontiff’s stemma just behind St. Peter’s Basilica; but his motto, “Cooperatores veritatis” (Coworkers of the truth), signaled that his would be a pontificate of clear teaching rooted in deep and broad scholarship.

What, then, shall we make of the episcopal motto that Pope Francis, the former Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., took during his service as archbishop of Buenos Aires –  “Miserando atque eligendo” (Lowly and also chosen) — and will retain as pope?

Foremost, expect an evangelical humility. In the first days of his pontificate, “humble” was the adjective most frequently applied to the new bishop of Rome, and rightly so. It’s important to recognize, however, that Pope Francis’s humility has a distinctive character. It is evangelical humility, a Gospel-centered and Christ-centered humility. And it has been shaped over the course of his life by classic Jesuit (or Ignatian) spirituality: the rigorously disciplined commitment to selflessness-in-Christian-mission that was inculcated in members of the Society of Jesus before Jesuit formation became one of the victims of the Catholic Revolution That Never Was. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., became a sign of contradiction — a persecuted sign of contradiction — within his own religious order, as too many of his Jesuit brethren were seduced by the solipsistic zeitgeist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Pope Francis’s approach to the spiritual life and his understanding of Christian discipleship is, by contrast, the polar opposite of this faux spirituality of self-absorption, in which self-esteem displaces selflessness, and commitments to both ecclesial obedience and mission crumble as a result.

The new pope’s more authentically Ignatian approach to the interior life is nicely captured in a famous prayer, the Suscipe, of Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus — a prayer that also offers an interpretive key to Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s self-abasing episcopal motto:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,

my memory, my understanding,

and my entire will,

all I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.

To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

Give me only your love and your grace.

That is enough for me.

At the very center of this prayer is the sacrifice of one’s “entire will.” Submission of one’s will, to the divine will and to the will of one’s superiors, was crucial to the original Jesuit charism, or genius. The Catholic Church took an enormous gamble in accepting Ignatius Loyola’s offer to build a self-consciously elite corps of intellectual shock troops to meet the challenge of the Reformation and to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth: to “set all ablaze,” as the inscription beneath the statue of Ignatius at Jesuit GHQ near the Vatican sums up the Basque saint’s intention. Self-consciously elite bodies can revivify flaccid institutions; they can also corrupt them. It all depends on the will, and on the direction in which it is bent.

The Catholic gamble on the Society of Jesus was that the distinctive fourth Jesuit vow — radical obedience to the pope and complete availability for whatever mission he gave the Society or individual Jesuits — would bind this elite to the body of the Church so that it could be a true intellectual and evangelical leaven. And that is precisely what the Society was for centuries. But when the confusions of the post–Vatican II Church met the turbulence summed up in that epigrammatic year, 1968, things quickly unraveled. And a community of vowed religious that had long prided itself on its defense of orthodoxy now took the lead in challenging Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxis at every conceivable turn, in an embrace of fashionable enthusiasms that ran from Marxism to environmentalism to radical feminism and gay liberation.

In his days as Jesuit provincial in Argentina, Father Bergoglio resisted the deconstruction of Catholic doctrine and the corruption of religious life that beset too much of the Society of Jesus after Vatican II. One imagines that Bergoglio was grateful for Pope John Paul II’s early, if failed, attempt to reform the Society by putting it into a kind of papal receivership. And one can readily imagine the new pope’s being appalled by the notorious remark of an Irish Jesuit, Cyril Barrett, who was heard to bellow in a London restaurant, in respect of Mehmet Ali Agca (John Paul’s wannabe assassin), “The only thing wrong with that bloody Turk was that he couldn’t shoot straight!”

But why, finally, was Bergoglio such a sign of contradiction within his own religious community? Why did a world-renowned Jesuit say after the 2005 conclave that, while he was no fan of Joseph Ratzinger, he nonetheless ended up supporting him because anyone was better than Bergoglio? To be sure, Bergoglio drew this kind of animosity because he is a man who accepts the symphony of Catholic truth in full, and that brought down on him the odium theologicum of the more deconstructively inclined. Perhaps more to the point for the future (and for the rest of the Church), Bergoglio was a living challenge to his Jesuit brethren because he understands that the life of discipleship, mirrored in Saint Ignatius’s Suscipe, is the antithesis of late-modern and postmodern willfulness: “Take, Lord, and receive . . . my entire will.” The whole nine yards. All of it.

That classic Jesuit commitment, embodied in the humility of Pope Francis, will be an important instrument in the new pope’s program of reform within Catholicism, for the entire Church (as has happened before in history) has been weakened by willfulness, self-absorption, and careerism. It is also of prime importance for the world. As the moral culture of the West continues to crumble under the assault of willfulness apotheosized (and legally enforced) as the end-all and be-all of life, the new pope will offer, in his person as well as his teaching, an alternative. Nietzsche versus Ignatius Loyola: all will, all the time, versus all self-gift, all the way — not a bad summary of the options; not a bad guess at the kind of Church the new pope will want to offer the world as a nobler expression of human aspiration.

Francis was chosen for reform. If the conclave of 2005 was about continuity, the cardinal electors trying to “stretch” the pontificate of John Paul II into the future by choosing the Polish pope’s closest theological collaborator as his successor, the conclave of 2013 was primarily about governance. The cardinals came to Rome this time concerned about the incompetence and corruption (financial and otherwise) that had seriously distorted the work of the Roman Curia, the Church’s central bureaucratic machinery. And what many cardinals experienced and learned during the papal interregnum confirmed their sense that the machinery was indeed badly broken and that a man with a capacity for what Italians call “governo” — decisive governing — was needed. Then, after a number of papabili, potential popes, had been measured against that requirement, a consensus began to form: The work of reform should be entrusted to an older man with a proven track record of dealing with corruptions of various sorts; a man free to do what needed to be done because he was not bound by associational or organizational or national-ethnic ties that could impede his fixing what clearly had to be fixed; a radical Christian disciple who lived evangelical freedom fearlessly.

And thus the choice fell on Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Some were surprised, as some always are, that the Catholic Church has once again chosen as pope a man who believes what the Catholic Church teaches; but that’s because dreams of the Catholic Revolution That Never Was die hard, even among people of a secular cast of mind. Others were surprised that a pope who, citing his age, had renounced the Chair of Peter a few weeks shy of his 86th birthday should be succeeded by a man who was 76 at his election, and others imagined that only a local, an Italian, could straighten out the mess that the re-Italianization of the Curia had caused; but who better to clean house than a knowledgeable outsider who is free to do what needs to be done, quickly, because he knows that he will not have a long pontificate? Still others imagined that the new pope should be someone who would replace the obvious incompetents in high curial office before settling down to business as usual, but that prescription failed to reckon with the sea change of Catholic self-understanding that has come to its first maturity in a man like Bergoglio — the change from institutional-maintenance Catholicism to robustly evangelical and missionary Catholicism.

From his experience in Latin America, Pope Francis knows that a kept Church has no future, whether Catholicism is “kept” in terms of legal establishment, historic cultural habit, or both. In 2007, Cardinal Bergoglio helped lead the Catholic bishops of Latin America toward a new vision of evangelical possibility in the most densely Catholic part of the world. That revolutionary vision was embodied in what is known as the Aparecida Document, named for the Brazilian city in which the bishops hammered out a 21st-century challenge to all Catholics to rediscover the missionary vocation into which they have been baptized. At Aparecida, the bishops of Latin America agreed that “a Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith . . . [or] to bland or nervous moralizing” cannot respond to the spiritual hungers of the postmodern 21st century, much less to aggressive secularism and fervent Pentecostalism. Rather, everyone in the Church “must . . . start again with Christ.” Friendship with the Lord Jesus and submission to his transforming power must be relocated at the center of the life of faith; in working toward that end, Catholics in Latin America would rediscover the “revitalizing . . . newness of the Gospel,” and a culturally “kept” Church would become once more a powerful engine of evangelism. All Christ, all Gospel, all mission, all the time: That is why, and by whom, and for what the lowly sinners of Bergoglio’s episcopal motto have been chosen.

And that is the kind of reform Pope Francis seems likely to lead: an evangelical purification of the Church’s structure (including its senior leadership as well as its central bureaucracy), precisely for the sake of mission. Whatever obscures or falsifies the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel and its offer of friendship with Jesus Christ must go; whatever is contributing to the mission poorly must be purified so that it can contribute as it should. Churchmen whose failure to embody the Gospel they proclaim impedes the Gospel’s reception must be replaced by those who live what they preach, for the sake of the effectiveness of the mission to postmoderns, whose natural spiritual instincts have been corroded by cynicism and irony. A capacity to explain, with compassion and empathy, the “Yes” to something true, good, or beautiful in the human condition that lies behind every “No” the Church says must become a primary qualifier for high ecclesial office.

That evangelical reform must also take its orientation from the truth that Easter comes only after Good Friday. As Pope Francis put it in a spontaneous homily to the cardinal electors in the Sistine Chapel the day after the burden of the papacy had fallen on him: “When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross, and when we confess Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord: We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.”

Finding savvy and competent collaborators to lead the purification and restructuring of the personnel and the machinery at the Church’s Roman headquarters is an important early task for the new pope. But the cardinals of Conclave 2013 took the essential first step toward deepening Catholic reform by choosing as bishop of Rome a free man: a disciple who is free with the evangelical freedom that comes from a lifetime of accepting the cross and submitting his will to the divine will; a leader who has shown that he can do what needs doing without counting the cost.

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of the recently published Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.