Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was declared the new pope today. He has chosen to take on the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, who abandoned the vast wealth he inherited from his merchant father to take the vow of poverty and identify with the poor.
This name choice has been described as “precedent shattering” not only because it’s the first time a pope has taken the name “Francis,” but also because the choice signifies “poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding [of] the Catholic Church” and suggests a departure from business as usual (Michael Martinez, CNN).
This is an auspicious development because Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has historically straddled theological conservatism and social liberalism. He is a staunch advocate for the unborn, the poor and the marginalized. In 2009, he went on the record saying that “unjust economic structures that give rise to great inequalities” violate fundamental human rights (Catholic News Agency).
Yet he also firmly resisted his fellow Latin American Jesuits’ growing penchant for liberation theology–a liberal theology that equates Christian salvation to liberation from social, economic, political injustice (John L. Allen Jr., National Catholic Reporter).
The “good news,” or the gospel, offers real hope for our present world because it affects all creation and calls for the transformation of our economic, political, social, and cultural structures. Jesus declared that he came “to proclaim good news to the poor … to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:18-19). The gospel is certainly no less than social justice. However, it is also much more than that.
Sin is the cause of our psychological alienation within ourselves (Gen. 3:10), our social alienation from each other (Gen. 3:7, 16), and our physical alienation from the rest of creation (Gen. 3:16-19), and the root of all these is our spiritual alienation from God. Vertical reconciliation with God through Christ precedes our horizontal reconciliation with the world (2 Cor. 5:18-21).
Therefore, we must not merely promote justice but also proclaim the good news that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Lk. 2:10-11), who inaugurated the Kingdom of God (Mk. 1:14-15), lived to fulfill all righteousness (Mt. 3:15; 5:17-20), died as the substitutionary atonement for our sins (1 Cor. 15:1-3), and rose again to usher in the New Creation (1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 5:17). In so far as it is news, the gospel requires verbal communication (Rom. 10:14).
Wait, but don’t actions speak louder than words? What about the famous saying, which, incidentally, is attributed to St. Francis?
“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
This saying is often quoted by Christians who declaim the importance of social justice and relegate the proclamation of the gospel as secondary. However, St. Francis never said such a thing. What he did say was:
“No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulation of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister. The minister should take care not to grant this permission to anyone indiscriminately. All the Friars, however, should preach by their deeds.” (The Rule of 1221, Chapter XII)
Far from diminishing the importance of preaching, St. Francis wanted to ensure the faithful proclamation of the gospel by restricting preaching privileges. On the other hand, all were permitted to “preach by their deeds.”
In other words, we must preach by both word and deed. The mark of a true disciple is both a creed (2 Cor. 11:4; 1 Tim. 1:3; 1 Cor. 15:1-11) and a “love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). The two cannot be separated.
I pray that the new Pope Francis, like his namesake, will uphold both orthopraxy (right living) and orthodoxy (right belief). I pray that the new pope will uphold the old Christian hope–hope for the world here and now and hope for the world to come (1 Cor. 15:19; Rom. 8:18-25).
What are your impressions of the appointment of the new pope?