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Jorge Mario Bergoglio, our new Pope Francis, has had a good nine months. A year ago he was driving around Buenos Aires in his battered old car celebrating the sacraments and ministering to the poor. Today he is Time magazine's Person of the Year; on the cover of The New Yorker's Christmas issue and his smiling face is continually flashing across our television screens. It is a giddy time for faithful Catholics, having our Pope the focus of such good press. But be assured, today's press darling is tomorrow's press target.
The world is intrigued by Pope Francis for many reasons. He seems so genuine and authentic. He is determined to be his own kind of pope, not captive of the regalia and papal traditions that have built up, and perhaps encrusted, the office over centuries. He eschewed the traditional red slippers for his plain brown orthotic shoes. He lives in community with his fellow priests instead of the papal apartments overlooking St. Peter's Square. He is bypassing the Curial bureaucracy and seeking new sources of guidance and support for the Church's mission.
His self confidence appears to rest in his deep faith in the fundamentals of Christ's message. As a result, he freely goes into the lion den of the global press corps and speaks his mind. He welcomes interviews and questions from journalists who are avowed atheists and enemies of his core beliefs. And, in turn, the press appears to love him...so far. Perhaps, it because he is such a good story: a Argentinean poor boy, an ex-night club bouncer, a Jesuit who his confreres first made their superior and then rejected his leadership, sending him off to the provinces to be a high school literature teacher. And then Pope John Paul II selected him to be Argentine's top Prince of the Church, but one who rejected the prince's palace to be closer to the old, the sick and the poor.
Pope Francis' is a great story, but stories get old, and many in the press are already circling for the even better story, that ancient story: the decline and fall of the hero. It has begun already. Francis recently wrote a 5,000 word letter to the faithful, in which 80 or so words warned of the dangers to the world's poor of unrestrained capitalism and a trickle-down economy that may not trickle down to the poor. It was not a papal encyclical with all the consultation, vetting and care that goes into these Church policy statements, but a papal reflection. Within days, if not hours, Pope Francis was accused of being a Marxist, said to be calling for the end of capitalism and of endorsing socialism and, perhaps, communism.
The big government folks, with their nanny-state regulations for nearly every human action, immediately faced off with the free market absolutists who see capitalism as the answer to all those same human actions. On one side the incredible benefits that capitalism has brought to the world's poor, hunger, sick and suffering seem to have been ignored. On the other, the need that raw capitalism be leavened by Christian charity and concern for the poor is regularly overlooked.
Even within the Catholic community and among Christian fellow-travelers the debate is still raging. However, before we all chose up sides and go to the mats, perhaps we should, in the parlance of the street, cut our new pope some slack. He admittedly is not an economist. He is a pastor. He lived 76 of his 77 years in a South American country noted for an abusive crony capitalism. He walked the "villas miserias" of Buenos Aires and saw firsthand just how slowly the country's capital was trickling down to his suffering flock.
We may be wrong, but we get the impression that Pope Francis is a man in a hurry. Again, he is 77, has a huge job, is working with only one good lung and has miles to go before he sleeps. Although Curia officials deny it, he is reported to be doing at night in Rome as he did for years in Buenos Aires. He put aside his princely garb for civilian clothes and visits the prisons, the orphanages, soup kitchens, the homes for abandon women and hospices for the dying. He apparently wants the same of us and the niceties of economic theory be damned.
Catholics need to brace ourselves for the coming press corps counterattack. Many are beginning to realize that Pope Francis, like all our recent popes, stands firmly against their very secular world view. While he may have great compassion for homosexuals and abortion seekers who have been victims of rape, he nonetheless affirms traditional Catholic teaching about these matters. We should not deceive ourselves. Many in the press will not put up with this. Soon their long knives will be coming for him.
Two thousand years ago, the elites of Jerusalem heard that there was a country preacher up in the hill country, a carpenter at that, who was curing the sick and the blind and preaching about our debt to the poor. Driven by curiosity, some of them left their comfortable temple offices and went out to see and hear this new popular attraction. They came close and even asked him a few tricky questions. They were amazed and fascinated by His answers. But on the way home the more than thought about the implications of his message, the more they began to worry. And when they returned to the capital, they began to plot how to neutralize him.
God, protect the Vicar of Christ.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.