Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected by the Vatican’s papal conclave last week after five rounds of voting. He took the name Pope Francis — after St. Francis of Assisi, the revered Italian friar who founded the Franciscan Order — and became the first Jesuit and first leader from the Americas of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
It is far too early to determine Pope Francis‘ potential leadership style in the Holy See. He is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful individual who wants to work with the Roman Curia. He will surely promote Vatican II’s important principles and oppose abortion, contraception and homosexual “marriage.” What’s more, he reportedly rejects Marxist-inspired liberation theology, which is popular in South America, but supports social justice and recently told the media, “I would like a church which is poor and working for the poor.”
What would be interesting is if the Holy Father decides to take up the role of a great conciliator. Following in the footsteps of two superb leaders, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, he could turn out to be the bridge-builder that the Vatican and international Catholic community have long been hoping and praying for.
There is already some evidence that Pope Francis could be very successful in the role of mending old fences and building new bridges.
On one hand, Pope Francis has strong ties with Argentina’s Jewish community. After the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building, he showed, in the words of Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, “solidarity with the Jewish community.” He became the first prominent individual to sign a 2005 petition for justice over this incident, and he toured the new building. As Mr. Rosen told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Those who said Benedict was the last pope who would be a pope that lived through the Shoah, or that said there would not be another pope who had a personal connection to the Jewish people, they were wrong.”
On the other hand, the new pope also has a good relationship with Argentina’s Muslim community. Sheik Mohsen Ali, director of the House for the Diffusion of Islam, told the Buenos Aires Herald, “He always showed himself as a friend of the Islamic community. He visited the At-Tauhid Mosque in the neighborhood of Floresta and the Arab-Argentine Ali Ibn Abi Talib School, strengthening our relations.” Centro Islamico de la Republica Argentina Secretary-General Sumer Noufouri added that he was a “respectful, pro-dialogue person who knows Islam.”
Let’s be honest. How many popes in recent history have ever been held in such high esteem by Jewish and Muslim leaders right off the bat? The same goes for other Christian communities, who all seem genuinely pleased that the man they knew as the archbishop of Buenos Aires has become “Il Papa.”
Conciliation will also be necessary when it comes to dealing with the various internal and external conflicts that have hit the news in recent years. Sexual-abuse cases and allegations of financial scandal have been massive headaches for the Vatican’s overworked communications office. Some opinion polls in North America and Europe show that young and middle-aged Catholics will continue to abandon the Roman Catholic Church unless it either reforms or modernizes certain social values. Moreover, the ordination of women is quickly becoming a contentious issue.
It’s always amusing to watch liberal Catholics and non-Catholics attempt to impose their will on the Vatican. There is no doubt Pope Francis will have to deal with these matters (and others) with a steady hand and a level head. His conservative positions on social issues are understood — all the cardinals at the papal conclave had similar views, after all — but he also seems to have the ability to work with people of different religious backgrounds, beliefs and opinions. It’s an important skill many would like to have, but very few do. It will serve Pope Francis well during the good times and difficult periods he has yet to face.
The jury may still be out on Pope Francis. Yet there are early signs that his papacy could be as memorable and influential as those of his two recent predecessors.
Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.
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