Yes, the world has a new Pope! Indeed a very quick one. Some even argue, in spite of the absence of official records from the early Conclaves about a thousand years ago, that this has been the quickest Conclave ever. Statistics aside, it is true that most likely the biggest surprise of this papal election is not so much Francesco (careful not the 1st, but simply Francesco), but rather that (arguably) an outsider has been appointed in less than 24 hours and with only five rounds of polls. Plus, differently from the Pope-Michel Piccoli in Nanni Moretti’s famous film ‘Habemus Papam’, which involuntarily predicted the resignation of the Pope emeritus Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Josè Mario Bergoglio seemed quite happy to have been chosen as the successor of Saint Peter. He greeted the mass in St. Peter’s square in Rome smiling and with a gentle and simple ‘Buonasera’, then asking the crowd to pray for him, to bless him as he is a normal, simple believer, like them.
So, is everyone happy with the new Pope? Yes, apparently. Maybe.
Certainly the spokesperson of the Vatican, father Lombardi is. Since Josè Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francesco, the Vatican press office is making sure to spread his image of simple and humble shepherd of souls all around the world. The Pope chose the name Francesco in accordance with his high respect for and the simple value of the church’s vow of poverty. The Pope refused to wear the golden cross all Popes wear before facing the crowd from the balcony (he preferred a simple one made of steel). The Pope ordered not to forge the personal golden ring each Pope is given and which is destroyed when they die (or resign!) in order to save money and rather asked to have a simple one made of copper. The Pope went back to the hotel he booked to collect his private effects and wanted to go by bus, and not with the SCV1 (the plate of the personal car of the Popes), and pay the bill with his own money. He is such a simple person that he even supports a football team (San Lorenzo de Almagro for the footballholics). Revolutionary!
This is the refrain that has been purported by the official media of the Holy Roman Church as well as by some of the most important media corporations and not only the Italian ones. According to them this Pope will be a revolutionary one. He is the first Jesuit and he used to wash the feet of the poor people of Argentina, according to the mercifully creed of the Jesuit. Padre Lombardi carefully omitted that Jesuits were not always so mercy, especially when they took the lead of the Holy Inquisition, an institution that killed thousands of people.
Another premise that should make Pope Francesco a simple but revolutionary Pope lies in his origins. He is the first non-European Pope, he is from Argentina, and therefore he will open the Holy Roman Church to new frontiers as it has never happened in history. Interestingly enough, a quick reality check tells us that Europe has not been the epicentre of the Holy Roman Church for a rather long time anymore. A very interesting and clear map by the Washington Post shows that 41% of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholic believers live in South America, almost twice as many as in Europe (24%) where the numbers are simultaneously shrinking at a much quicker pace than anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, Africa and Asia, the two fastest Catholicizing areas in the world, together already account for the 27% of the total number of Catholic believers in the world, thereby surpassing Europe by far. The Vatican, electing an Argentinian Pope has probably simply come to acknowledge the importance of South America in particular and of the other most remote, though most populous areas of the ecumene. A Eurocentric Catholicism, pivoted on the traditional centres of power, would have missed to represent the 76% of the Catholic world. Therefore, is the election of a South American Pope really a revolutionary choice?
Some argue that it is a revolutionary choice because the former Cardinal Josè Mario Bergoglio was an outsider. He is not a man of the establishment. He is not acquainted with the Roman Curia, where the Italian Cardinals hold the power; nor was he amongst the favourites from the Americas. He overpowered all the favourites: the Brazilian Pedro Odilio Scherer, the Mexican Robles Ortega, the Columbian Salazar Gomez and Timothy Michael Dolan and Sean O’Malley both from the US. He is the underdog, chosen by the Holy Spirit amongst the poorest of Buenos Aires where he has worked all his life. For sure, the outsider story may be true for the latest conclave who elected him as Pope. Though, certainly it is not for the one who elected Joseph Ratzinger in 2005. On that occasion in fact, the then simply Cardinal Josè Mario Brigoglio turned out to be the most voted for opponent of the man who would become Benedict XVI. Since then of course eight years have passed and many may have forgotten the runner-up of a papal election to let him become a simple outsider. Twice.
The truth is that men can be called revolutionary for what they do, not for who they are. The Cardinal Josè Mario Bergoglio has been and done many things; but Pope Francis has done nothing yet , be it revolutionary or reactionary. One of the main reason that made Benedict XVI resign was the overwhelming weight of the many scandals the Vatican had to face over the last years papacy. The case of pedophilia is a black stain not washed away yet. The Ior, the Vatican bank, is still on the black list of the banks who have not adopted the standard norms against money-laundering set by the so-called MONEYVAL committee of the Council of Europe. Benedict XVI left behind uneasy relations with the Muslim world, after the (in)famous speech of Regensburg in 2006. Furthermore, Benedict XVI held that in Africa’s continuing crisis in fighting HIV having protected sexual intercourses would contribute to spread HIV, not to fight it. Will Pope Francis say something different on these topics? Will he be able to mend fences with Islam, despite having already been depicted as a close friend of the Jewish Argentinian community? Will he be able to help Africa to eliminate one of its bloodiest wars?
Trying to define Pope Francis as a revolutionary because of the name he has chosen for himself is unfair. At the same time it is just as unfair to define him as a reactionary for his alleged collusion with the Argentinean dictatorship in the late 70’s and for always having been in the frontline against gay rights. Let him work first and then we will see what will he be remembered for.
Sebastiano Sali is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies-King’s College London and currently TUBITAK Research Fellow at the Centre for International and European Studies at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. His doctoral project focuses on the self/other relations in the process of political identity construction and the connections with foreign policy formation, especially in the case of Turkey. He holds a MSc in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a MA in Political Science from La Sapienza University of Rome. He was active in politics in his native city Mantova in Italy and thus still keeps an alert eye on Italian politics. You can contact him at sebastiano.sali[at]kcl.ac.uk and on twitter at @5ebs.