Could this be a John XXIII moment. Guest blogger: Monsignor Tony Doherty

Mar 18, 2013

Announced in every news outlet, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian Jesuit who is the first in his order and the first from Latin America has been named as the bishop of Rome – Pope number 266.

In these early hours of the announcement, we are left with the crumbs of his story. Theologically conservative, we are led to believe. Socially active and human – left his Episcopal palace and lives modestly, catches public transport, a seventy-six year old who loves to walk, and interestingly cooks for himself. Never underestimate a man who cooks.

More significantly there is some evidence that he has held the socially active and more conservative sides of the church in Latin America together as a bridge builder. A striking credential in a continent which has been famous for the birth of Liberation theology, a movement which called for powerful critique of social injustice and the primacy of marginalised people.

Many in the Catholic church today ache for the personality of a John xxiii to bring some healing and future direction to a deeply wounded church.

There may not be many around who can remember the excitement, now fifty-four years ago, when Angelo Roncalli , the first day in his job as Pope John xxiii walked out of the Vatican city and on his first pastoral visit, went to the local goal.  ‘Since you couldn’t come to see me’, the pope said, ‘I’ve decided to come and see you.’

The walk was unprecedented, or at least broke the 100 year tradition of Popes not leaving the confines of Vatican City. This visit became more than an expression of human compassion, it in many ways defined the way he saw his future ministry.

Within 18 months John xxiii was asking the Church to throw open the windows and let some fresh air into this stuffy place, as he convoked a General Council of the Church. The Catholic church has never been the same since those heady days.

What has this to do with Jorge Bergoglio, the 266th incumbent in the Papacy?

A fact that is frequently forgotten is that Angelo Roncalli was never seen as anything but theologically conservative. Indeed, one of my personal memories was that in my last years of seminary training, a dictate came from John xxiii that all major theological studies, previously studied in one’s own language, were to be studied in Latin. We had been used to Latin, but to have such subjects as Scripture and History studied exclusively in Latin seemed to seriously restrict any proper research. This was an issue of language and words.


For John xxiii actions spoke much louder than words.  To address the question of race, he simply appointed the first black Cardinal. To address the question of the Roman Curia’s hold on the Church he invited bishops from every corner of the world to Rome for a Council to reflect on the future.  To address the divide between people of different religious beliefs, he invited representatives from every faith to be present at the council. To address the issue of women in the church (one must admit in a muted fashion) he invited women to attend the council as auditors. One of the few women present at the Council was an Australian Rosemary Goldie.

There were words, of course, plenty of them. But for John xxiii it was perhaps the actions that were more significant.

Is it too much to hope that Pope Francis will be like his namesake, that breath of fresh air, that young spirit from Assisi, a person acutely aware of the power of the symbolic action?

In a gesture of turning away from his life of entitlement, a young Francis of Assisi, so the story goes, divested himself of his rich clothes and handed them to his confused father. An embarrassed bishop standing by hastily covered his naked body with a simple peasant’s frock, a replica of which members of the Franciscan order still proudly wear to this day.

It is interesting to speculate what significance our new pope places on the name Francis. Will the Pope bring the horizon of the mind and the spirituality of that free spirit of Assisi to his immense responsibilities – or will the weight of the administration be too great?

While speculating, and that is probably all we can do on this first day of a new pontificate, what symbolic action would be sufficiently strong to send a coherent message to the victims of child sexual abuse whose lives have been so deeply wounded, or to the women who feel so sorely disenfranchised in the church, or indeed to the people of this planet who live in dire poverty and hunger?

It remains to be seen if this new Pope, a smart and experienced outsider that he is, a modest man who embraces a simple life-style, is equal to the task of reforming this damaged church and employ the immense symbolic power at his disposal.

Monsignor Tony Doherty



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