As my mom was watching media coverage surrounding the selection of the new pope, she incredulously announced, “Francis sure doesn’t look like he’s 76!” From the kitchen, my dad yelled, “She’s gotta be!” and started singing, “Where the Boys Are,” the 1961 hit by singer Connie Francis. Still belting out the irony, he walked into the living room where, mid-lyric, he met my speechless mother.
Pope Francis is, in fact, two years older than pop star Francis, who is 74, and only nine years younger than the 85-year-old Eminence Emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI, who recently retired due to “advanced age.” But my mom was right: Francis does seem a young 76. Perhaps it is partially the juxtaposition with his predecessor, who looks more decrepit than the original Albus Dumbledore (played by Richard Harris, who did, sadly, die after the second Harry Potter film). Yet it’s true that Francis has a jovial glow, appearing both able-spirited and -bodied.
For those of us who are skeptical of Church authority and structures that look even less like Jesus than the new History Channel miniseries portrays him, maybe we can find new hope in the yet. As Molly Bolton and others have rightly pointed out, the Catholic Church, its papal election process, archaic “girls are made in the image of cooties” leadership policies, and even Jorge Bergoglio himself are eminently flawed (by failures far from contained to the Vatican or the Catholic Church). And yet is there not some potential for progress in Bergoglio’s election? To wonder if there might be is not necessarily delusional or, if you’re a feminist, blasphemy; there may be reason to cautiously — fallibly — hope in the possibilities of the new papacy.
First, Francis is a pope of firsts. As many have noted, he is the first pope from Latin America, despite its being home to a whopping 41% of the world’s Catholics. He is the first Jesuit pope, and the first to choose the name Francis, ostensibly evoking the simplicity and humility of his Assisian namesake (and perhaps a Pete’s Pet Shop in the holy city).
Second, he is a pope of lasts. Engendered by his name change, Francis claimed the church should be “for the poor.” Declining the elevated papal throne, and Napoleon complex, he stood side-by-side with cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. Delaying the customary inaugural blessing of the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, he petitioned those gathered for prayer — allowing the first sounds of his papacy to be a collective, listening silence rather than his own solitary voice. Not afraid to get his bright whites dirty, Francis climbed aboard the cardinals’ bus, eschewing company limo, and paid his own hotel bill.
And apparently he is no stranger to the middle. Although as an Argentinian cardinal Bergoglio has strongly opposed same-sex marriage — in no uncertain or warm words — he recognized the rights of LGBT persons and voiced support, at least in private conversations, for civil unions. He has spoken with conditional language about the celibacy of priests, maintaining for now the Church’s traditional position while recognizing that it is not eternal doctrine, but a practice that could eventually change. Stances such as these suggest Francis may be willing to compromise when he reads the writing on the walls of an evolving world. For social progressives, his willingness to bend-with-discretion may not win him awards, but neither should it go ignored.
We can acknowledge the power of the pope and the Catholic Church while working for more positive, inclusive use of it. We can do so while affirming that the whole, on-the-ground Church is much greater than the few in matching, hierarchical power, and the whole world — you know, the one that’s in God’s hands? — is much greater than “the Church.” Is the figure of Francis enough to redeem the deep patriarchy and systemic abuse of the ecclesial elite? Absolutely not. Will he do anything to open the Last Judgment ceiling Church Fathers have drawn, and let in the light that leads to justice and love? We can hope in both/and liminality without holding our breath. And, more importantly, our voices.