Pope Francis has been on the job for all of a week, but in some ways it feels like a year. Perhaps I should clarify: in the brief span of seven days, a boatload of punditry has spewed forth opining as to what this man's pontificate will be like, or should be like; how it compares, or will compare, to his predecessors; what decisions he will make, or should make; what his emphases will be, or should be; etc. I find this tiresome and premature. Are we so impatient that we can't simply wait and see and pray for this man who has been handed a most awesome responsibility? Give the guy a breather!
That said, as a few people have asked me for my impressions of the new Holy Father, I will give them, trying my best to avoid doing that which I have criticized above.
I loved the joke he cracked about the cardinals going to the end of the world to find a bishop of Rome. There was a touch of humility to it, and the half-grin on his face as he said it added to it.
He asked the people in St. Peter's Square to take a silent moment to pray that God bless him in his ministry. Very fitting for the Servant of the Servants of God.
He strikes me as affable and amiable and personable, something we tend to like in public figures.
His penchant for going "off-script," for suddenly diving into crowds to greet and bless people, seems a truly fatherly attitude.
I dislike the way in which some people are using Francis' election to take shots at Benedict, just as I disliked people using Benedict's election to take shots at John Paul. Every man, and certainly every pope, is different, with a unique personality, with particular characteristics. Opposing traits can each be good in their own way (as long as they're morally licit): the jovial, convivial type is not automatically superior to the shy, quiet type, nor is the professorial sort necessarily better than the natural preacher, nor is the casual fellow above the formal -- nor is it entirely impossible to find all of these traits in the same person but expressed in different moments.
Now for my one small bit of hopeful prognostication:
For decades in the Church in the Western world, one major division within the Church has been between what might be generally labeled as "peace & justice" folks and "personal morality" folks. There are those whose focus is on aiding the poor and denouncing violence, as the Church has always done, and those whose focus is on calling others (and themselves) to moral rectitude, particularly in the realm of sexuality, as the Church has always done. Both are promoting one element of the Catholic faith, but both tend to neglect the other, and in some cases even to dissent from it: I know a lot of P&J people who think the Church must change on abortion, contraception, fornication, re-defining marriage, etc.; and I know a lot of PM people who are far too eager to use the death penalty or go to war or who think torture is perfectly acceptable as long as you're torturing the right people. And worst of all, these two sides seem to get so stuck in their ways as to think, for example, that one couldn't possibly be both a lover of the poor and against gay marriage.
Pope Francis proves this notion wrong, and shows us how we can bring these two pieces back together. This is a man who washes the feet of AIDS victims and publicly opposes his country's attempts to re-define marriage. This is a man who denies himself the comforts of office so as to live in solidarity with the poor and who also denounces contraception as not in accord with our nature. See, folks? See how naturally these go together? See how easy this is?
St. Francis of Assisi, in whose honor the new pope took his regnal name, had a great love of the poor and a profound devotion to the Eucharist. He was a man of peace who, when he went to the Sultan, did not deliver a pluralistic message of "I'm OK, you're OK," but, out of love for Christ and neighbor, tried to convert him from Islam to Christianity. He was a man who encouraged the lay faithful to greater holiness and who had a deep respect for priests and gave complete obedience to the Holy Father. Yes, these things do go together. They're supposed to. It's called being Catholic. May Pope Francis show all of us how to be better, fuller Catholics.