Thursday, March 14, 2013

"White Smoke"

“Habemas Papam!” Those words resounded throughout the Vatican on Wednesday evening after the throngs gathered outside St. Peter’s Basilica observed white smoke emanating from the chimney connected to an old stove temporarily installed again in the Sistine Chapel.

As you know, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected as the new pope on the fifth ballot of the sequestered cardinals. He took the name Francis, the first pope with that name, although two of the best known saints in the Catholic Church are Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier.

The election of Cardinal Bergoglio came as a surprise to me, and evidently to a lot of other people. For example, he was not even mentioned in the March 12 Washington Post article about who might be elected.

Not only is Pope Francis the first pope with that name and the first pope from South America, he is also the first Jesuit to be elected pope. Born in Buenos Aires in 1936, the son of an Italian immigrant, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1958.

While seen as a staunch conservative on such issues as abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, the new pope is said to be moderate to liberal on social issues such as poverty and social justice. Regardless of his own position, though, it is quite evident that the new pope faces huge problems within the Vatican as he assumes his new role.

Bob Englehart has been an editorial cartoonist for the Hartford Courant since 1980. On March 3, a cartoon by Englehart (b. 1945) appeared in that newspaper. Here it is:

The problems of the Vatican are disturbingly portrayed in Andrew M. Greeley’s book White Smoke: A Novel about the Next Papal Conclave (1996). Although the next conclave after its publication was in 2005, it seems quite relevant to the current situation. One hopes, however, that the present situation is not quite as bad as that portrayed in Greeley’s novel, which I just finished reading earlier this week.

Greeley (b. 1928 ) is a Catholic priest and a sociologist who for years has taught at both the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona. He has written a huge number of books, both non-fiction (academic) works and novels—including several bestsellers.

In White Smoke, Greeley says that the fictitious cardinal from Chicago “understood clearly that the Holy Spirit does not whisper names in their [the cardinals’] ears but rather works through the ordinary political process of an election” (pp. 26-27).

In Greeley’s novel, Don Luis, who is eventually elected pope—and takes the 
name John XXIV—gives a talk before the conclave begins. He closes talk with a quite significant statement, saying that what he considers to be of prime importance “is the affirmation that we exist to preach a God of love, we try to be people of love, and we want our Church to be, insofar as we poor humans can make it, a Church of radiant love.
     “Does such a Church have a future?
      “How could it not?” (p. 143).

Then later at a dinner party, but still before the start of the conclave, Don Luis prays, “May the Spirit inspire us to work well and with openness and courage . . . and grant that our Church, our poor battered Church, may shine once again as a light of radiant love to all the nations” (p. 204).

I pray that the words of Greeley’s fictitious pope will also be on the lips and in the heart of Pope Francis.


  1. You write: "While seen as a staunch conservative on such issues as abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, the new pope is said to be moderate to liberal on social issues such as poverty and social justice." That sounds like every establishment Catholic leader we've heard from in the last thirty years. So far, then, more of the same, it would appear. Let's hope for some progressive surprises.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Anton. I think you are right in seeing, at least at this point, the new pope to be very much the same as what we have seen for quite some time now (since John XXIII). I hope he will surprise us as Pope John did.

      I agree with what my daughter(who is now director of the University of Arizona's religious studies program) said, as quoted in today's "Arizona" Daily Star":

      "I certainly think the election reflects the current reality of the Catholic Church," in that a large percentage of the church's members are in Latin America, Seat said. Francis appears to hold the traditional values of the church on such things as women being ordained, abortion and contraception, Seat said.

      "I'm not sure he will take the church in any significantly different ways in terms of church doctrine," Seat said.

  2. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson wrote in an e-mail,

    "I'm encouraged by this election. Francis reminds me of Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil, who also emulated Francis of Assisi."

    I certainly hope Pope Francis is much like Camara.

  3. I like that this Pope is the first in many ways. Being the first non-European Pope is most significant.

    I cannot believe that given the historic respect St. Francis of Assisi has that no Pope has ever used his name. I am hopeful that this name choice signals many positive things so far as poverty and social justice are concerned.

    While I strongly favor a less conservative view on abortion, contraception, gay marriage and women's ordination, I believe much more immediate (and hopefully permanent) good would come from the Church's agressive attack on poverty. In so doing, it may help pave the way for those conservative issues they Church wants to avoid.

    1. I was also surprised that there had never been a pope named Francis. There have been at least four Franciscan popes--but the new pope is a Jesuit, and there has sometimes been considerable tension between Jesuits and Franciscans.

  4. I'm sure you are right about the fact that not a lot is likely to change in the "Mother Church". But having as Pope someone who rides public buses can't be all bad. Maybe at least he can shake up the Vatican, and perhaps include more diversity.

    God must like "diversity". He "made a lot of it", to paraphrase an old saw!

  5. I am attempting to "Reply" to ricarlsonB66214. As I recall from an earlier attempt - that function is inactive for me. If it works this time, then all is well....

    I really like your "God must like 'diversity.' He 'made a lot of it'" And "old saw" maybe - but it is still very sharp, at least according to those who seem bent on reinstitution pre-WWII White Male Supremacy (Wrapped in God-talk.) in all things domestic - and belligerent Ugly Americanism in all things foreign.

  6. Well, the "Reply" again didn't work....

    Some thoughts on the/this Papacy:

    In general, it seems that any personal qualities of the man who occupies that position are severely muted by the centuries of tradition/canon law that make all change nearly impossible.

    The spotlight is on Francis now. What he does about the ugly sexual misconduct that seems rampant in the Catholic Church - will weigh heavily on him and the institution. Any foot-draging will eliminate any moral authority from any other attempts to do anything.

    If he cleans up the Church's act, he may be able to maneuver his institution onto the side of the poor in all places - not just those contries with governments who do not view their poor as enemies of the state. (Those - Latin American countries - are identifiable by their prohibitions of publically reading, reciting, singing Mary's Magnificat - because it includes threatening words for the rich-powerful.)

    When I think of this Francis, I think if a scene from "Brother Son, Sister Moon" - a movie about this Pope's namesake.

    Francis approaches the Bishop of Rome with a petition to rebuild derelict places of worship and serve the poor. He asks, essentially, why can't we do God's work and rely on His care for us - just as the birds do?

    Alec Guinness, as the Bishop and under severe conviction, steps down from his lofty throne - and kisses the feet of Francis. (Much to the consternation of the court lackies/hangers on!) He says that that was his reason for becoming a priest in the first place, but that matters of power, wealth, lands, politics were the focus of his position now. He tells Francis to do what he desires - with the Bishop's blessing. And, then fades into the spiritual background of human power. Excellent writing/directing!

    The ball is now in this Francis's court. He can choose to add honor to that name - or the reverse. I don't think neutrality in this matter is an option.

    A recent book by Anthony Gill, "Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Church and the State in Latin America," sheds much light on this matter.

    Hope that helps!

  7. The new Pope will have to prove he admires St. Francis of Assisi. One of his "firsts" is that he is the first Jesuit to become pontiff, and the jesuits were founded by another St. Francis, Francis Xavier. Pope Paul VI started backpedalling from Vatican II as soon as he replaced Pope John XXIII, and that has been the unswerving direction of the Catholic hierarchy ever since. Why would Pope Francis be any different?

    He has great burdens to carry, and for the sake of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, I wish him well. I have, however, no expectations for any great improvements. A third of the Catholics born in the United States have abandoned the Church, and I see no reason to expect him to do anything to slow the exodus. On the contrary, during the last election top American Bishops openly toyed with the excommunication of leading Democratic Catholic politicians, which would almost certainly have lead to a full rupture of the nation's largest denomination, and his hardline stands on numerous social issues suggests even more flagrant action in the future. The Protestant Reformation may be on its way to picking up a large new denomination, the American Catholic Church.

    1. On the news this morning, Pope Francis has stated that he did pick the name based on Francis of Assisi, and that this was based on both his concern for the poor and for the environment. I pray his thoughts and actions will continue in this direction.

    2. Yes, I saw that in the BBC online article posted this morning with this headline: "Pope Francis wants 'poor Church for the poor.'"

    3. Oops! I just read an article by a Jesuit, (link here: and I see my quick research on the subject tangled up two different Jesuits. Francis Xavier was indeed a famous Jesuit, but as a missionary, not the founder. The founder was Ignatius Loyola. He founded the order after reading a book about the saints while recovering from battle wounds. His top two inspirations from the book were St. Francis and St. Dominic. He also read a book about the life of Christ at the same time, and the result was the Society of Jesus, which is commonly called Jesuits.

    4. Craig I noticed at the time that what you posted was slightly wrong, but since Francis X. was one of the original seven Jesuits, I decided not to make a correction.

  8. Well, I just now noticed another thing that doesn't work for me in this site:

    1. A couple of weeks ago, I added a profile pic to my information. It doesn't show.

    2. The reply function still doesn't work.