Rome — “May God forgive you.” That’s Cardinal Dolan’s translation of a joke Pope Francis toasted the College of Cardinals with a day after being elected the 267th pontiff.
Having watched the prayerfulness of some of the cardinals going into the papal conclave that would elect the Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio pope, I have reason to believe that perhaps God had something to do with Papa Francesco, as the Romans call their bishop. Others, of course, see it otherwise and will not be quick to forgive. “I don’t think he’s what we need right now in the Catholic Church,” Madeline Cuomo, the sister of the current governor of New York and member of a powerful Empire State family, told Crain’s New York Business. “We’re looking to move the Church forward, with gay marriage and women priests. He’s going to turn back the clock.” Her father, the former governor, had more to say: “The way he’s lived has been simple and admirable, but it has not taught him how to deal with the high pressure of huge problems in the Church. . . . The whole question of women, the question of marriage — not even the question of same-sex marriage, which is a recent development — but the whole idea of priests not being allowed to be married. That’s led to a lot of unhappy relationships and ugly relationships by people who are basically sick. That’s something this new pope will have to deal with.” There’s a lot there Pope Mario would get to work on — all with the apparent worldview that marriage is somehow the solution to sickness? There is, indeed, a lot of unhappiness, and it’s worth considering the Church’s proposals to help. I wish the former governor had spent the Saturday before the conclave meeting the inspiring, fatherly, studious seminarians at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York who are on fire with love of God and the blessed gift of a vocation to unreserved service to the people of God. Perhaps he might see in their testimony what a radical gift celibacy can be. “[Cardinal Timothy] Dolan would probably have been closer to where the Church is at the moment,” former governor Mario Cuomo went on to say. “It’s the United States and it’s New York and it’s a different kind of personality.” Funny he should mention Cardinal Dolan, who, despite asking Mario’s son to step back from his insistence that abortion access expand in the United States and suing the federal Department of Health and Human Services over religious-liberty violations, still manages to get a papal endorsement from Cuomo. For his “personality.” Forget the content, enjoy the personality? The current governor of New York would take a more positive view of what he’s seen of the new pope thus far: “I think it’s exciting that he’s from the Americas — that is a positive,” he said. “His life story is inspirational in many ways. Obviously, we’re just learning about him, but what you hear about him, the decisions he’s made, the way he’s led his life, the modesty of it, the humbleness of it, I think is quite praiseworthy.” The ratings system here seems all a bit unhelpful. Consider for a moment that this man, Pope Francis, is Catholic. As in: He believes the Word of God and lives it as much more than an obligation or an agenda. The gospel and the sacraments are his mission and mandate. He’s the leader not of some people with some nice consoling sentiments but of a people believing in an all-merciful Savior who calls us to live our lives in service and love, in surrender to the will of God. All of us, but most particularly those who are Catholic, best welcome him to the international scene, and into our lives, with his moral guidance as a teacher, pastor, and father. When I stood in St. Peter’s Square watching the white smoke and waiting for the “Habemus papam,” I observed that the pilgrims, tourists, and Romans gathered there didn’t want to see a favored candidate so much as they wanted a Holy Father. In asking for prayers and leading the crowd in prayer, Pope Francis introduced in the most public way the priority of a well-ordered interior life. I mention the Cuomos because their comments well illustrate the central challenge of our time: secularism. Despite being a prominent Catholic family, they are advocates of legal abortion. Mario Cuomo is best known in this context as an early leader of a “personally opposed, but” approach to the issue in political life. It’s an outgrowth of a surrender to secularism, a buy-in to the privatization of religion, even — or even especially — among professed believers. But that’s not religion. Religion infuses all of life. Religious believers who truly seek to live radically different lives of love and service make democracy and civil society succeed. “The Lord brings about a change in those who are faithful to Him,” Cardinal Bergoglio said in an interview in 2007. He was talking bare-bones Catholic faith there. When he prepared to greet the crowds outside St. Peter’s, flowing out and filling not just the Square but the Via della Conciliazione, there was an odd peace — odd because it is so countercultural. Normally, in cold, wet, packed crowds where people find themselves waiting, there might be conflicts. Not where I stood. It was as if that Holy Spirit the cardinals had said they would be conferring with had a presence outside the Sistine Chapel too. In that 2007 interview, Cardinal Bergoglio said: “Staying, remaining faithful implies an outgoing. Precisely if one remains in the Lord one goes out of oneself.” We do not change the faith, the faith changes us. We Americans, who tend to see the world in terms of politics and personality, might consider regarding this Francis as one who might just be able to help us, to lead us out of unjust division and into the future, with a deeper understanding of the source of his hope. He’s not just another name in the news but an apostle, the successor of Peter, a Holy Father. — Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a director of Catholic Voices USA, and a member of the Archdiocese of New York’s Pro-Life Commission.