Pope’s humble actions show he is ‘truly authentic,’ Jesuit priest says

Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating his inaugural Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 19. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating his inaugural Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 19. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Pope Francis’ priorities will include working for the poor, protecting God’s creation, strengthening interreligious dialogue, reforming the Roman Curia and evangelizing, a Jesuit priest told journalists at an April 3 event at the National Press Club in Washington.

Jesuit Father Tom Reese, director of the Religion and Public Policy program at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, talked about how the first Jesuit and first Latin American pope could change the church.

“This is going to be a much more activist pope,” said Father Reese, who covered the conclave from Rome for the National Catholic Reporter newspaper. “I think he told us his agenda when he picked the name of Francis.”

Like St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis helped the poor when working in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as bishop; focused on peace and interreligious dialogue with evangelicals, Jews and Muslims; and highlighted the importance God’s creation and human dignity.

After Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, he quickly showed the world his simple and open persona, signaling that he would stray away from “heavy-duty theology” to focus on biblically based evangelization and living the Gospels’ message daily, Father Reese said.

For this, he would draw from his experience as priest and bishop, he added.

“He is truly authentic. These are things that he was doing in Buenos Aires,” Father Reese said. “You know, as archbishop, you don’t take the bus because you think ‘I might become pope one day.'”

The pope’s other priority, reforming the Vatican’s administrative government known as the Roman Curia, could be more difficult, Father Reese said.

Though several cardinals agree to reform a curia accused of corruption, they don’t know how to do it, said Father Reese, who has authored several books about the church’s power structure. Conservatives might want the curia to better police church issues while liberals would like the church’s power to be more decentralized, he said.

“The real question is: What should the members of the curia do?” Father Reese said.

Father Reese also mentioned that the curia’s problems influenced the cardinals’ decision to name a relatively unknown outsider as the new pope.

During the official pre-conclave meetings, Cardinal Bergoglio talked against the evils of careerism and the need for the church to “come out of herself and evangelize.”

“Now, that made an impression,” Father Reese said. He added that the cardinals knew that Cardinal Bergoglio had been the runner-up during the 2005 conclave.

Pope Francis knows his acts of humility — such as paying for his own hotel bill and visiting AIDS patients — send a message, Father Reese added.

“I think he is using these symbolic actions as a way of preaching the Gospel and also as a way of sending signals to the clergy,” Father Reese said. “He is modeling a certain attitude and practice. That is a change in culture that is very important for the church.”

This change includes Catholics seeing the church not only as a do-gooder organization, he added, in reference to Pope Francis’ remarks that the church is not only a “compassionate NGO.”

“We don’t just run soup kitchens,” Father Reese said. “In reaching out to the poor, we are also preaching the Gospel. Taking care of people’s bodies we are also taking care of people’s souls.”

By Maria-Pia Negro, Catholic News Service. Negro is a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington, Va.