Were we too negative in our judgment of Pope Francis? This was suggested by one friend of LAB, who recommended an analysis by Fr Francisco de Roux, the provincial of the Colombian Jesuits. Pacho de Roux, as most people call him, is famous as the creator of the Magdalena Medio Development and Peace Programme, an attempt to use community-based development programmes as a way of undercutting the vicious Colombian internal conflict, which has given rise to another 17 similar programmes in Colombia. The Colombian Jesuits are also close to the Argentine Jesuits, because after Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s period as provincial in Argentina, which left the Jesuits divided, a Colombian was put in to heal the wounds. Pacho de Roux thus sees the unhappy past of the man who is now Pope, but also suggests how he may have developed:
‘He was living in an Argentina turned upside down, managed by Catholic military. At that time this man, who became provincial of the Jesuits before he was 40 and was anxious about the government of the country, was inspired by an anti-Marxist ideology, like that of the military. Nevertheless he criticised them, offered them advice and insisted that they respect human dignity. But his language wasn’t very strong, and possibly there were silences that are morally very questionable. This is a very personal assessment: I see the Pope as a man who over the years has freed himself from ideological positions and focused on suffering human. And so he started working with the poor and became a bishop who walked around the streets and travelled by bus.’
The other point de Roux makes is that Francis is a very different figure from his predecessor, the intellectual Josef Ratzinger. ‘Francis is not an intellectual, but a man very close to popular devotion… He is a man of popular piety. He captures the experience of God in the simplicity of popular practices, processions, shrines, the Christmas novena, the family saying the rosary. The strength of Catholicism is in the way simple people live their faith. In this he resembles John Paul II.’
Asked about his expectations of Pope Francis, he said: ‘I hope for a Church close to human beings, especially those in distress, those labouring under poverty. I hope for a Pope very sensitive to migrants and the displaced. He will take the Church out of the power struggle and place it alongside a poor Jesus. I also hope that he fights against corruption.’
LAB’s Newsletter on Pope Francis reflected a particular moment, when all analysis was inevitably based on his past, and Latin American commentators understandably focused on his record during the dictatorship, since many other countries have wrestled, or are still wrestling, with such issues. Since then the Pope’s evident preference for a down-to-earth style has impressed people – Buona sera were his first words to the crowd after being introduced in solemn Latin, and he is not living in the papal apartments, the ‘Apostolic Palace’ – ‘You could get 300 people in here,’ he is rumoured to have remarked. Nevertheless, Pope Francis has only just begun to tackle the major challenges he faces. One of these is the reform of the central Church bureaucracy, the Curia, and on this he has made an interesting move in appointing a commission of eight cardinals from all continents to advise him. The members named are not particularly radical, but this change not only takes the issue outside the narrow confines of Roman experts but is also being interpreted as a gesture towards a more decentralised model of Church government, which is one of the main demands of progressive Catholics (see this analysis by The Tablet’.s Vatican specialist, Robert Mickens. Perhaps even more significant for Latin America, it is being reported that Pope Francis has ‘unblocked’ the progress to official sainthood of El Salvador’s martyred archbishop, Oscar Romero. It has been a good start.