As the world awaited word on who would be elected to succeed Pope Benedict XVI as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, there was much talk about the need for reform and transparency in the Roman Curia — the church’s central administration — and the virtual impossibility of anyone who might be regarded as a Vatican insider being able to meet the challenge.
Then with the white smoke came the surprising news that the cardinal electors had turned to Latin America and elected a native of Argentina, who happened also to be a Jesuit, to occupy the chair of Peter.
The new pope chose to take the name Francis, honoring the memory and legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, the “poverello” or “poor one,” best loved of all the saints, thus winning the hearts of countless Catholics worldwide who admire Franciscan spirituality.
He gave no indication of doing so, but Jorge Mario Bergoglio might also have adopted the familiar and famous prayer of St. Francis as a “mission statement” for his papal ministry:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” Talk about what the world needs now!
Commentators all over the world associated the person and style of the new pope with the words “simplicity” and “humility.” Upon becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, he chose not to live in the archbishop’s mansion, gave up the car and driver, chose to take public transportation to work, and cooked his own meals while living in a small apartment, setting a good example for the clergy.
It remains to be seen how effective this new pope will be in bringing transparency and needed reform to the Curia. He speaks Italian fluently and has had experience of service on several Vatican congregations, although he has never lived in Rome as a full-time Vatican bureaucrat. And that brings me back to the immediate challenge awaiting him.
Forty years ago when I was named dean of arts and sciences at Loyola University in New Orleans — which is located immediately next door to Tulane University — I decided to visit my counterpart at Tulane, an 18-year veteran of the academic deanship there, to get acquainted and seek some advice. His opening words to me were, “You’re going to find that it would be easier to move a cemetery than to move a liberal arts faculty.”
I thought of those words as I looked at Pope Francis on television, smiling and waving to well-wishers from the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. He now has the job of moving the cemetery. And both figuratively and practically speaking, there is no more difficult archeological terrain anywhere in the world than in Rome for doing that.
If there is to be a new era of transparency and reform in the Vatican, Pope Francis will need all the prayers he can get.
Jesuit Father William J. Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: email@example.com.