What an exciting time for the world and for the Catholic Church! A Jesuit from Argentina – a Latino – is now the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. My wife commented this morning that like Republicans and Democrats in the United States, the Catholic Church is courting the Latino vote!
Our students seem happy that a Latino is the new Pope. Spanish-speakers are the fastest growing segment of the American Catholic Church, and they make up more than 50% of our population at Cristo Rey Boston High School. But, the fact that Francis is Latino may not be the only thing drawing our students and others to him.
The former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio lives simply and has devoted himself to serving the poor. A former provincial of the Jesuits of Argentina, he took his name from the founder of the Franciscans, Francis of Assisi, a saint who dedicated his life to the downtrodden. This Pope took a bus to work, talked about his favorite soccer team with his fellow passengers, lived in a sparse apartment in Buenos Aires, famously washed and kissed the feet of AIDS victims, visited the slums around Buenos Aires often, and celebrated Mass with the homeless and prostitutes, people shunned by most of society. He worked with leaders of other faiths and was unafraid to point out inequalities and injustices in his native land.
He began his papacy wearing a simple white robe and iron cross, eschewing the red cape traditionally worn by popes, and he asked for and received a powerfully silent blessing from the 100,000 people who came to St. Peter’s Square to greet their new leader. The morning after his election he stopped by the hotel he stayed at for the Conclave to pick up his luggage and pay the bill himself.
The first homily by Pope Francis was an off-the-cuff sermon about the courage to walk with God, to build the Church by serving others, and to profess the Gospel, the story of Christ’s life on earth. I don’t think we’re going to see a radical change in the Church’s teachings. After all, our Church changes slowly. But, I think we’re in for something special with this Jesuit pope. He will challenge us all to live like Jesus did and to better serve the poorest among us. For those of us who work in the ministry of education with the urban poor, Francis is a pope who understands our struggles and our joys, and as the leader of a small school in Boston, that gives me great hope.