Lyndsay Freer: Intellectual with the common touch

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The Catholic Church is in for a new kind of papacy with Pope Francis I, who has already broken with tradition

After the surprise election of Pope John XXIII in the 60s - the elderly man who was regarded by many as a stop gap, but who revolutionised the church beyond anyone's wildest dreams by initiating the Second Vatican Council - nothing should come as a surprise. The 1978 conclave brought another surprise; the cardinals had reached a stalemate and the little-known Cardinal Karol Wojtyla emerged as Pope John Paul II - the Pope who revolutionised the papacy.

Why, therefore, should we be surprised at the early result of this conclave and the election of a man who was not one of the top 10 on the list of Vatican watchers and commentators? There were no clear front runners so we were expecting to settle in for at least three or four days of waiting.

But here we were on day two. Along with many thousands of others, I stood in the rain and cold for nearly four hours under the sea of umbrellas, waiting for the final smoke signals of the day.

We were waiting for the third billowing of black smoke, and black it began at 7.15pm, but within a few seconds changed to masses of white smoke enveloping the Sistine Chapel chimney and roof. The crowd responded with wild cheering and applause.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was our new Pope. He took the name of Francis. In 2000 years there has never been a Pope Francis.

We frantically searched our notes to learn more about this new pope of ours. He was 76 - beyond the ideal age, some commented. But reading on we began to wonder if a little miracle had happened.

He was born in Buenos Aires to an Italian immigrant railway worker, was educated and studied for the priesthood there, later becoming rector of the seminary from which he graduated.

A Jesuit, he is regarded as an accomplished intellectual who studied in Germany and lectured in literature, psychology and philosophy. During the economic crisis in Argentina, he spoke out strongly about how globalisation can affect the world's poor.

When addressing the Latin American bishops in 2007 he said, "We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many."

Unlike his predecessors, he chose to live in a simple apartment instead of the archbishop's palace and decided to take the bus to his office instead of being driven by chauffeur. We are told that he cooks his own meals.

The respected Vatican commentator, John L. Allen, once wrote that Bergoglio is respected by both the conservatives and moderates for his keen pastoral sense, his intelligence and his personal modesty. He is also seen as a genuinely spiritual soul, and a man of deep prayer. Allen also reports that he has shown deep compassion for the victims of HIV-Aids.

It is customary at the celebration of Mass on the night before Good Friday that the priest re-enacts Christ's gesture of kissing and washing the feet of his 12 apostles as a gesture of service. In 2001 Bergoglio chose to visit a hospice to kiss and wash the feet of 12 Aids patients.

It is interesting to note, when we have been hearing so much about the need for reform in the church's central administration, the Curia, that he recently said this. "We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-reverential church. It's true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that's sick because it is self-reverential, I have no doubts about preferring the former."

If Cardinal Bergoglio's address to the thousands who gathered yesterday to acclaim his first appearance on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica is anything to go by, we are in for a different kind of papacy.

He broke with tradition by choosing the name Francis, suggesting no ties to anything that had gone before. He greeted us warmly and asked us to pray with him and for him. That invitation brought forth rapturous cheering, but he asked for a few moments of silence so that we could all pray together. For a full minute you could have heard a pin drop - no mean feat to get a couple of hundred thousand people to recollect themselves in prayer.

Lyndsay Freer of the Auckland Catholic Diocese media and communications office has been at the Vatican for the conclave.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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