Pope Francis will be officially installed today; in the church’s calendar, St. Joseph’s Day. In New Orleans, in the middle of Lent, St. Patrick’s joins this as a “feast” day when all cares and pledges can be forgotten.
At a Saturday press conference, the Argentina-born pontiff proclaimed he would create a new image for his Roman Catholic Church. To do so, he must create a revolution, turning a body widely known for its conservative policies, except for John XXIII’s years at St. Peters. Angelo Roncalli was elected in 1958 and died in the middle of his summoned Vatican II, in 1963 – the year of the assassination of the first Catholic U.S. president, John F. Kennedy.
Blame Pius IX for the church’s conservative bias. When he became pope in 1846, Cardinal Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferreti was known as a liberal of his time. The widespread European movement known as the 1848 revolutions happened; he was a willing participant and indeed a leader, after all; the mid-19th century changes started in his Italy.
He leaned right shortly after, perhaps out of fear that the pope would lose the Papal States and with them his temporal powers. When the Risorgimento occurred and Italy was united – the first time since the Roman Empire – Pius IX retreated behind the walls of the Vatican. He summoned a conclave; the only thing can be remembered, the church fathers forged the doctrine of papal infallibility when speaking on faith and morals. And then lifted their cassocks’ skirts when Camillo Cavour and Giuseppi Garibaldi entered the city.
Pope Francis approached his new responsibilities and authority with abject humility, according to reports. Troublingly, his past is related to the time when Argentina was taken over by military putsch. More than 30,000 citizens “disappeared,” including children; some of the boys and girls “reappeared,” adopted by officials. Their parents were supposedly leftist; not along the lines of “Che” Guevara who was a high-born Argentine but still they were known liberals.
Since the white smoke appeared out of the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican has worked very hard to erase the pope’s South American connections to a scandal approaching the European Holocaust. On a daily basis; sometimes hourly. Because of the church’s recent history.
Yet as millions of ex-Catholics – including me – understand, a new pope should be judged on an individual basis. But since Pius IX, we are all skeptical. As a journalist, I’ve known men, a few women, whose lives had been ruined. I wrote first about the Vatican when it was reined over by Paul VI; during his era, priests and nuns could be “defrocked” on a simple petition. That was temporary. Above my desk is a charcoal portrait of Italian John Paul I, known as the smiling pope; he lasted only 33 days.
John Paul II was chosen pope on the full knowledge he was from the church militant, but that was when the Cold War blasted most frigidly: Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty was still locked up in Budapest’s American Embassy. Having survived fascism, the Vatican was jittery facing communism. The Polish prelate anointed Cardinal Josef Aloisius Ratzinger and put him in charge of what was known as the Holy Office of Inquisitions. The German curial official, known better today as Benedict XVI, created the Roman Catholic Church in his own image.
We can all wish Pope Francis success in his reign and very good luck. If he’s serious about reshaping the image, he’s going to need our best wishes. Meanwhile, church attendance is shrinking all over the Western world. My Episcopal congregation is not alone, as a fellow Grace parishioner and I discussed Sunday.