First impressions matter, even when you have been a cardinal, archbishop of Buenos Aires and the runner-up in the last election of a pope. Humility was one of the first words attached to Jorge Mario Bergoglio as he made his initial appearance as Pope Francis, before a cheering crowd outside St. Peter’s Basilica. He now famously asked the faithful to bless him and thanked the thousands gathered “for your embrace.”
Already the story often has been told about Cardinal Bergoglio riding the bus, cooking his own meals, living in a modest apartment as opposed to the palatial residence of the church. He has held firmly to a vow of poverty and simplicity. More, he long has dedicated himself to the plight of the poor. That comes as little surprise in one respect, the Catholic Church teaching just that. Yet, here was a pope, in word and tone, conveying the message at the start, the idea of social justice.
Perhaps here is a unifying theme, long part of the church yet renewed, a humble presence providing a way to bridge differences that divide many ordinary Catholics from the church hierarchy.
That doesn’t mean Pope Francis differs from his predecessor or church doctrines on such questions as birth control, abortion rights, gay marriage or celibacy. Yet this is a church in which many of its members, especially in the United States and Europe, and increasingly in Latin America, do not feel inspired, or fulfilled, let alone go to mass.
A pope from Argentina represents an obvious departure. The selection of a Jesuit is a first. There is the element of a church wanting to repair its image, its moral authority harmed by the mishandling of the sexual abuse crisis.
Most encouraging is the willingness of the cardinals to embrace a fresh set of eyes. Pope Francis hasn’t been part of what many close observers of the church view as a dysfunctional and hidebound Vatican bureaucracy. The church faces a power struggle over the direction of the Vatican bank, some resisting the necessary transparency to remain part of the international banking system.
Will the new pope use his relative distance to push for the required updates in ways of doing business? Will that distance translate into a greater measure of local control, his experience and first words as pontiff suggesting the possibility?
The challenges in front of Pope Francis hardly stop there. He must contend, among other things, with a shortage of priests, the harsh treatment of nuns and competition from evangelical churches. What he seems to grasp is that there are avenues for bringing new energy to the church without compromising doctrine. That is the hopeful first impression he made as pope.