As one of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, I had been eagerly awaiting the new pope.
It seemed serendipitous that I turned on the TV around 2 p.m. Eastern Wednesday to discover breaking news: The white smoke had gone up after only a few ballots just moments before. St. Peter’s Square was packed with more than 100,000 people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. (When something happens to a fifth of the planet, it’s history.) A soft, gentle rain fell over the crowd, which stood in expectation, elation, and probably, like me, fear.
I’ve been at war with my church, if not my faith, for a long time now. My city, Philadelphia, has had one of the longest-running, most egregious, and most expensive of the child sex abuse scandals. A few months ago I covered the trial of the highest-ranking member of the church hierarchy to be convicted of covering up the scandal. It was a gruesome trial at which one priest who had abused young boys had been given immunity from prosecution because he himself had been gang-raped at the seminary; once a victim, he had become a perpetrator and was now a witness. Other victims were badgered on the stand. It was appalling.
The cycle of sexual violence within the church and, compounding it, the vile cover-up have been repugnant and painful. The millions spent in defense of child rapists horrified me as it has so many Catholics. And so Wednesday was a day we were looking forward to and fearing: Would this new pope help to heal not only the thousands of wounded victims but also the church itself?
At first glance Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is perhaps what we all might have wished for: a humble, warm, compassionate, selfless man whose life’s work has been helping the poor. A Jesuit who began his life as a scientist (he has a master’s in chemistry and a Ph.D. in philosophy), he’s a highly educated intellectual.
The Vatican has a long history with Jesuits — a history of not liking their tendency to be well-educated and think for themselves. The choice of the first Jesuit in papal history was huge.
So too was the choice of a mixed-race pope. (Bergoglio’s father is Italian, his mother Latino Argentinian.) The choice of a non-European pope — the first in nearly 1,300 years — was shocking. This is the first pope from the Americas and the first from the Southern Hemisphere. Just over 40% of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America.
But what of the man, Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis?
As he stepped out and spoke to the crowd, he began, "My sisters and brothers," in flawless Italian. He smiled at the crowd — a warm, benevolent, believable smile. The cheers went up from below.
Bergoglio said, to the crowd and to Catholics worldwide, "Let us begin this journey together of brotherhood, love and mutual trust. Let us pray always for each other, bishop and people. Let us pray for the whole world. Let there be a great brotherhood. And now I would like to give a blessing. But first I ask you to pray for me."
He knelt, his head bowed, as he accepted the prayers of the people. Then he stood, and the prayers he first prayed with the crowd — the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Gloria — were prayers that included us all. We’ve known them since we were in kindergarten or earlier. As he prayed, he smiled at the crowd below, and the sea change was palpable. Here was a pope who wanted to immediately connect with the people, to ask for their blessing first, to pledge trust, and then bless them in return, but with prayers that were familiar and comforting, not prayers from and for the elite. He wasn’t talking at us, he was sharing the words we already knew. Bergoglio had already begun the journey with "sisters and brothers" toward "brotherhood, love, and mutual trust."
But would that be enough?
Yes and no. The elation of the first few hours have given way to a harsher light being shown on the new pope. "He’s antigay. He hates women." One queer website noted "The New Pope, Same as the Old Pope." I got into a Twitter fight with a few people, but found a kindred spirit in The Lesbian Mafia. They seemed to get it: This new pope was who I thought from the outset that he was — the most radical choice in the room.
Radical? you say. How is he radical?
Non-Catholics and even Catholics forget that the choices were from the conclave itself — a slew of cardinals who had been handpicked by one of the two popes who had held the Vatican since 1978, two of the most conservative popes in papal history. The cardinals from which a new pope would be chosen would be equivalently conservative. There weren’t any pro-gay, pro-women guys in that room.
But there was one progressive: Bergoglio. The Jesuit, the man of the people, the humble servant of the poor. That made him a radical choice, even if it doesn’t feel that way to many.
First and foremost, Pope Francis believes the primary role of the church is to do Christ’s work of succoring the poor, something the church has all but forgotten. He took the name of Francis, one of the most beloved and accessible of the rostrum of saints. Here is what God said to Francis, as the saint described it: "Francis, heal my church, it is in ruins."
The Catholic Church has been sundered by the priest sex scandal, and its victims are strewn over every continent, boys and girls, young men and women, people in their 50s still bearing the scars. The church has not healed them. The church has, under Pope Benedict XVI, turned the sex abuse scandal into a problem of too many homosexuals in the priesthood, as if child rape and queer sexual orientation are interchangeable. It has tormented the victims, many of whom are themselves gay teens and men. It has made the priesthood and gay priests all suspects.
Pope Francis is determined to heal that suffering, that pain, that rupture in trust between Catholics and their church. He began his papacy with that pledge.
He is also focused on poverty. More than three quarters of the world’s Catholics live in poverty. Francis has been outspoken on workers’ rights and rights for the poor throughout his life as a priest and tenure as archbishop and cardinal of Buenos Aires. He has stood with workers’ strikes and with the poor demanding services. He has eschewed the cardinal’s palatial abode and limousine in favor of a bicycle or public transport and a small apartment. Thus far in Rome he has paid his own way.
That’s nice for the poor, some say, but what about us? What about women, queers, and queer families? Francis was an outspoken opponent of the enactment of marriage equality in Argentina in 2010. Not surprising, as the church’s stance on same-sex marriage is clear: Hell, no.
There was never going to be a pro-gay pope. Or a pro-abortion pope. Not in that room in the Sistine Chapel. That man was not there. And may not be there when the next pope is chosen either. Remember that our African-American Democratic president just evolved on marriage equality less than a year ago. And he’s not the head of one of the largest religions or 76.
But there are glimmers that change could come from Francis as it did for Obama: When he was told not to baptize the children of unwed mothers, he said simply, that’s not what Jesus would do. He has also said, despite his strong stand against marriage equality and queer families, that gay men and lesbians must be treated with "decency and respect and compassion" and that there must be no discrimination against them. Perhaps his own evolution is in the wings.
That he is determined to clean up the church’s mess and fold the poor into the arms of the church is what will happen for now. Is it enough for LGBT Catholics aching for more? No. But it is a step toward what could be a new church, a better church. And perhaps, with our voices raised, this pope will finally hear us as he has clearly heard the voices of the poor.
VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is an award-winning journalist and writer. Her most recent book is From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, winner of the 2011 Moonbeam Award for fiction. Follow her on Twitter @VABOX.