–By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher 

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio washes the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The 76-year-old Jesuit became the first Latin American pope March 13, taking the name Francis. (CNS photo/Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters) (March 15, 2013)
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio washes the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The 76-year-old Jesuit became the first Latin American pope March 13, taking the name Francis. (CNS photo/Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters) (March 15, 2013)

In 2008 I had the opportunity to hear then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio speak at the Eucharistic Congress in Quebec. I was excited to learn that he was speaking as I was already familiar with his strong and unrelenting advocacy for the poor in his own country and his reputation for living with simplicity and humility in solidarity with the poor.

As a personality he did not stand out among the various bishops and cardinals who gave catechetical addresses each day of the Congress. But his reflections on the Eucharist were thoughtful and compelling. What stood out quite powerfully was unspoken: his daily witness as a leader committed to advocating for the poor and the powerless and his reputation as someone who imitated the example of Jesus by a life of prayer, simplicity and service.

We now have, for the first time, an American Pope, but not from the America of global power and privilege but from the southern hemisphere, from the other America of profound inequality and poverty. In the same way, Francis comes onto the world stage from the Church of the poor, who make up the majority of the world’s Catholics (and the majority in our world’s population.)

Just as the outlook and spirituality of his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI were shaped in part by the tragic and violent events of the 20th century in Europe, especially in Poland and Germany, our new Holy Father has been shaped and influenced by the realities and history of Central and South America: not only the exploitation and poverty of the majority of Latin Americans but the military dictatorships of the 1970’s and 80’s in Argentina and the neighboring countries of Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil.

As North Americans we are largely unfamiliar with the widespread torture, murder and imprisonment without trial throughout Latin America that victimized tens of thousands of real or imagined government opponents in the name of anti-Communism and the doctrine of national security during the Cold War. Nor have we as a nation atoned for our own government’s complicity in the overthrow of democratic governments and crimes against humanity.

In Argentina perhaps as many as 30,000 people were “disappeared” by the military and security forces during the nightmare years of the “dirty war” between 1976 and 1983. Divided against itself, Argentine society, including the Catholic Church, has struggled since the return of democratic rule to confront the truth of what happened and find a way to achieve justice and accountability and reconciliation and healing.

As the Superior General of the Jesuits of Argentina during the years of the dictatorship, our new Holy Father has been both praised for his behind-the-scenes efforts to secure the safety and release of political detainees and criticized for not publicly denouncing the human rights violations of the military. Under his leadership in October 2012 the Argentine Catholic Bishops issued a collective apology for their failures during the era of dictatorship. Argentine human rights activist and Nobel Prize laureate, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who was arrested, tortured, and detained without trial in 1977 by the junta said after the election of the new Pope that “there were bishops who were accomplices of the dictatorship, but it was not the case of Bergoglio.”

Having taken the name Francis, under the patronage of ‘Il Poverello’ the poor man of Assisi I wonder if his pontificate will imitate not only his poverty and simplicity but also his urgent mission to take Christ out into the world. In 2008, then Cardinal Bergoglio, preaching on Palm Sunday in Buenos Aires spoke about this:

“We say that today the Church has spilled out into the street, to imitate that Palm Sunday, but also to affirm that today, in a special way and by extension, the place for Christ is out in the street. The Gospels tell us He would go to the temple, that He would go to the synagogue, but they also tell us he was on the roads, in the cities, in the streets. Today the place for Christ is the street; the place for the Christian is the street. The Lord wants us like Him: with an open heart, roaming the streets of Buenos Aires. He wants us walking the streets of Buenos Aires and carrying His message! Like Him, on the road and on the street. He doesn’t want us hoarding His word just for ourselves, locked inside our own hearts, our own house, or in the temple, instead that we spill His word on the street. He wants us walking out on the street.”

Both Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier traveled literally to the ends of the earth to share the message of Jesus. The poor man of Assisi and his followers fanned out across Italy and then Europe to re-ignite faith in Jesus and to renew the Church.

Almost fifty-years ago at the close of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI spoke about service and the life of the Church in words that continue to be both relevant and urgent:

“We stress that the teaching of the Council is channeled in one direction, the service of humankind, of every condition, in every weakness and need. The Church has declared herself a servant of humanity at the very time when her teaching role and her pastoral government have, by reason of this Church solemnity, assumed greater splendor and vigor. However, the idea of service has been central.”

A Buenos Aires shanty town
A Buenos Aires shanty town

I wonder if by taking as his namesake St. Francis, who was a deacon, if the new direction that we can expect from our new Pope is a rededication to service, to diakonia. Perhaps under Pope Francis the “New Evangelization” which has been proposed by his predecessors, might actually have a chance of taking root in our Church. Perhaps we will be able to embrace an evangelization that integrates personal conversion to Christ, a renewal of catechesis, a deepening of community and diakonia, that service that witnesses to Christ, who came not to be served but to serve.

Perhaps as we approach Holy Week and Easter the words and example of our brother and Bishop Francis will help us as disciples to unlock the power and the vitality of the Word of God that is in our hearts and our families and our parishes. As we gather this year for Palm Sunday and prepare to welcome the Word of God into our hearts and lives, may we not only process to our parishes but continue to walk out into the streets of Ketchikan, Juneau, Hoonah and Yakutat, carrying in the witness of our words and actions the message of Jesus Christ.

Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau.
Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23
Email: charlesr@gci.net