Together with millions around the world, I rushed to the most nearby screen as the two words flooded social media: white smoke! Together with millions I waited anxiously to get a first glimpse at the face of the Catholic Church for today and the years to come. Together with millions, I evaluated my immediate reaction to cardinal Bergoglio, a relative unknown (on this side of the world), but that some on my Facebook page immediately dubbed “minn tagħna, dan…”
What makes an unknown man, minn tagħna? Even more extraordinary, what makes a Pope likable?
Cardinal Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy not only with huge shoes to fill, but with an enormous baggage to shackle him. His reputation as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith preceded him. His being a most respected theologian and academic distanced him from “the people”. His shy and cultured personality appeared as if it belonged to another “bookish” era. All of these characteristics fit the requirements of the most difficult job in the world. None of them made him particularly minn tagħna.
In contrast, even EuroNews had no idea who Bergoglio was as Cardinal-Archdeacon Jean-Louis Tauran announced “Habemus papam!” Not only did they not get his name right, but like the rest of us they had to rely on Wikipedia to know the skimpiest of details about his life and ministry. Thus, unlike Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Francis immediately became a symbol everyone could relate to. The name “Francis” is loaded with meaning among Christians and non-Christians alike. His being a Jesuit brings back happy (or not!) memories of early and advanced schooling for the millions in the world trained in the Society of Jesus’ prestigious global network of academic institutions. Most crucially, his gestures of simplicity bridge the vast divide between Pope and faithful that had been systematically built into the Catholic psyche in these past centuries. For the first time, Pope Francis incarnates the Vatican II ideal of a church that is the people, making him truly … minn taghna.
Pope Francis has been compared to Ratzinger’s predecessor, the Blessed John Paul II. But JPII was a Pope for the television era who relished that strange fusion of theatricality through cameras that transmits messages top-down. Pope Francis, however, seems to be a man of the people, an icon, if you will, for the tribal men and women of the social network. In calling himself the Bishop of Rome, in addressing, first and foremost the local church for whom he is shepherd, in creating a global congregation by truly being-with his local community, he struck that essential balance between “village” and “globe” that is our world today. Even more crucially, in distilling the message of Jesus as “good news for the poor”, and in living it through simple gestures, he retrieves the hope for authenticity, for true meaning, in a world where more and more we mistaken a never-ending game of make-believe for “life”.
Pope Francis struck a chord with many. Yet will the hope he symbolizes be fulfilled? Will he be a true shepherd embraced by the many tribes that is the Catholic Church? Will his papacy be marked by unity-in-diversity? Is the Catholic Church entering a new era?