One doesn’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the significance of Pope Francis, a Jesuit priest who spent much of his service riding buses, cooking his own meals and living a simple life among the sick and poor, while eschewing the rich trappings of office.
In electing Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy, the conclave of cardinals this week lifted their hearts and spirits toward the heavens but kept their ears open to earthly needs, as well.
The Vatican has weathered heavy storms in the past decade, from an erosion of trust over its handling of priests involved in sexual crimes to declining church membership in Europe to the inner-circle politics that too often tangle the simple act of trying to lead.
The sudden resignation last month of Pope Benedict XVI was sensible, if unexpected. At 85, Benedict clearly felt the pressures of age and office. But his departure also opened a door at a time when much of the church’s congregants yearned for light.
At age 76, Francis is hardly likely to be a rebel pope. He has echoed many of the church’s traditional positions against the ordination of women, gay marriage and liberation theology – the belief that the teachings and example set by Jesus Christ justify fights against social injustices.
But the humble life Francis has chosen to lead speaks volumes for his outreach. He has openly criticized leaders who refuse to baptize children born to unmarried women. His preference for public transportation wasn’t just symbolic – he used his commutes to talk with real people in a troubled world.
For all of the perquisites of office, there is little reason to think Pope Francis will grow deaf or blind to the pain that accompanies the day-to-day living of so many of the people his church seeks to nourish. May God be with him in every moment of his daunting mission.