Southern Cross Pope may even have some rugby knowledge

By Richard Dunleavy

New Zealander Richard Dunleavy was the world secretary-general of the Marist Brothers in Rome for 13 years.

Pope Francis. Photo / AP
Pope Francis. Photo / AP

Among the references to the background of the new Pope Francis given by BBC, CNN and European media when the Pope was first presented to the world on TV on Thursday, I noted that nothing was said about his being the first Pope to be born under the "Cruz del Sur", the Southern Cross.

Nor did I hear a reference to the fact that he is the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere.

The emphasis was placed firmly on his coming from the Americas, particularly Latin America. Yet his having been born, educated, and lived most of his life in Argentina makes him in those senses clearly "one of us" and a true "Southern Man".

I seriously believe that the very fact that he is someone born well away from Europe which has historically been the dominant influence on the universal Catholic Church is one of the strongest qualities that Cardinal Bergoglio brings to the papacy. And when the commentators refer to the election of Pope Francis as "inspired" I agree that his being from outside Western Europe is perhaps one of the key elements of that inspiration.

He himself inferred it in his first words from the Vatican balcony when he remarked that his fellow cardinals had "gone to the other end of the world to find a new Bishop of Rome!"

But this inspiration, I am convinced, is more than just geographic or even symbolic. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, one of the basic principles of renewed Catholic theology and spirituality today is that they be inculturated, that is integrated with local cultures. For us south of the equator, where the majority of Catholics live, these cultures are many and varied, especially throughout Africa, and Oceania, and so vastly different in many ways from Europe. So we now have at the helm someone who is fully aware of the need to reach beyond the West European influence, and open up the Church Universal more to the cultures and mentalities of our southern peoples. In this sense the aim is to become less Roman and more Catholic , that is "universal".

That is not to say that we can expect some kind of democratic tsunami of Latin American, African - much less Oceanian - influences to sweep through the corridors of power in the Vatican. No, but I do think the cardinals in choosing Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope at this time were taking into account both the size and growth of numbers in the Southern Hemisphere Church there and also the vigour and comparative youthfulness of its membership.

Secondly, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires during the last fourteen years he has identified strongly with the poor and suffering in his local church. In his efforts to bring social justice in Argentina he confronted the Government there during and after the years of the dictatorships, and he made a clear and practical decision to "live simply so that others may simply live", forsaking the traditional archbishop's residence for a small apartment, and he adopting a lifestyle which enabled him to live his daily life and work as far as he could in solidarity with the poor of Buenos Aires.

Furthermore, his break with tradition in choosing the new papal name of the poverello, St Francis of Assisi, is, I suggest, another clear sign of his witness and identification in this regard.

As for us Kiwis, I think we can take comfort that, although Pope Francis comes from an immigrant Italian family, and is no doubt more at home with "the beautiful game", we will, for the first time, have a Pope who knows at least something about rugby since, as I know from my visits there, the leading Catholic boys' colleges in his Archdiocese of Buenos Aires are all bastions of "our" game. Perhaps he will have even learned something about the unexpected bounce of the oval ball which may stand him in good stead as he faces the many tricky balls that will come his way in the Vatican and the wider church.

- NZ Herald

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