The election yesterday of a new Pope of Rome has called forth various reactions, those of the cynical and those of the optimists. What are those reactions?
Cynics say that the whole event is a PR stunt. The embattled cardinals have chosen a weak front man, who has taken the sentimental name of Francis as Pope. The image he will project is of a humble and poor monk. In reality, so they say, this represents no change; whatever his real personality, the same people will run the show from behind the scenes.
They point to the fact that, at the age of 76, Francis I appears to be another stop-gap Pope. Although not officially Italian, he was born of Italian parents in Argentina, the most Italian part of South America, where even the Spanish is Italian. They see in him just another Italian or, at least, semi-Italian, bureaucrat.
Finally, the cynics see in this Jesuit (a word that is a synonym for scheming and cunning, one for whom ‘the ends justifies the means’) a man who compromised himself with the tyrannical Argentinian junta of some 35 years ago. Orthodox will note that Francis I was in charge of ‘Eastern Catholics’ in Argentina and recall the cruelty of the Jesuits who operated Uniatism in Eastern Europe.
Optimists will be appalled at such cynicism. Giving him the benefit of any doubt there may be, they see in the new Pope a sincere, pious, humble man of orthodox faith, who knows how to communicate with simple people. For them, he is a pastor who shares and understands the life of the people, like the average Orthodox priest, traditional in teaching but liberal in social matters and justice.
They see in him not a theoretical academic, but a realist. His age, they might say, proves it. Here is a man of experience, the very experience that is necessary to reform and cleanse the Vatican from its infernal, self-justifying and corrupt bureaucracy. Surely he is intelligent and practical enough to know how to delegate and manage people.
In the new Pope they see the opportunity for Roman Catholicism to return to the essentials. Perhaps he will turn the Vatican, with its indecent frescoes, into a giant Renaissance museum. Tourists could be charged to enter and the money collected given to the Catholic poor of the Third World. Meanwhile, the Church could transfer its centre to one of the early churches of the Rome of the first millennium.
With time we will see who is right, the pessimists or the optimists. For our part, we are reminded of the words of the first English Orthodox priest of the last century, Fr Nicholas Gibbes, who in 1934 described embracing Orthodoxy as ‘like getting home after a long journey’. The Roman Catholic world has been on a very, very, very long journey. It is our hope, however small, that the new Pope might understand this.