Our View: Francis: missionary to modernity?

Posted: March 15, 2013

Syndicated columnist Mona Charen — as her surname might suggest, particularly to those keenly attuned to ethnicity and its subtleties — is not a Catholic. She is of the Jewish faith. Nonetheless, this robustly conservative commentator may speak for us all when she expresses her wishes for the new pope.

“[F]or all of us, even the non-Catholics,” Ms. Charen writes in her most recent column, “it will be a tonic, and possibly even a little inspiring, if Pope Francis turns out to be just what he seems — a truly Godly man who lives out his faith.”

“Just what he seems.” A mere 24 hours into his papacy, the word on Pope Francis was precisely that: what you see is pretty much what you get. He’s been described as “a normal guy” and “an old-fashioned priest.” The most common adjectives employed: “humble,” “authentic,” “credible,” “self-effacing,” even “no-frills.”

All that seemed on display Wednesday when he was introduced to the world as the latest to wear “the shoes of the fisherman,” the 265th successor to St. Peter as Vicar of Christ. Eschewing the traditional papal red in favor of a simple white cassock, he not led only the 150,000 people crowded into St. Peter’s Square in simple Catholic prayer — the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be — for his immediate successor, Pope Benedict XVI, but also asked the assembled faithful to pray for him. And when his former colleagues in the College of Cardinals gathered around him, he refused the standard platform elevating himself above them.

Simple gestures very much in keeping with his reputation as someone not enthralled by the trappings of office, but far more interested in performing the duties required of a genuine man of faith.

But, as Ms. Charen advises, it would be folly to conflate humble with simple. Though known — and, by many, revered — for his dedication to society’s downtrodden and ostracized, he is no stranger to doctrinal battle, and even to controversy. As staunch in his defense of clerical celibacy as in his opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage, he clashed not only with the government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (on the marriage issue) but also with liberation theologians eager to bend the church to their radical liberal agenda.

Francis will need all such reserves of resolve as he confronts such challenges as the church’s ongoing sexual-abuse scandal — but most of all the notion that Catholicism is a church divided.

So perhaps what is needed, as Ms. Charen said , is a “tonic,” a leader far removed from byzantine Vatican politics disposed to remind the faithful that the church is not centered in Rome, or even this world — but around God and the eternal salvation He offers us.