The election of Pope Francis represents many firsts.
The first pope to take the name of the alter Christus, the “other Christ”, as the Saint from Assisi has been called.
The first pope from the “new world”. (Consider the sheer dint of significance this term alone represents on the lips of secular broadcasters. Who but the Church has a memory old enough to allow men of all the races, even today as with one mind or voice, to remember the Western hemisphere as “the new world”?)
The first pope from among the Company (or Society) of Jesus.
He is also the first pope in a long time to be known to announce during the Urbi et Orbi that in the morning he will go to thank the Madonna and pray for her protection: then to leave The Vatican first thing in the morning with a cleric-driver in an unmarked vehicle, visit for a prolonged time with the Madonna before her sacred image (with 20 minutes notice to the rector of the basilica), pray also before the tomb of St. Pius V (the intrepid Dominican reforming Pope), drive on to pay his own hotel bill, fetch his own clothes at the same hotel … Oh, and to stop to bless school children along the way.
It is (reliably) said that Pope Francis also firmly believes in the primitive spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola as it is carried on in the spiritual exercises strictly observed. (Something the Jesuits have long abandoned, my historian friends tell me, much to their more recent demise.)
Astounding to nearly everyone is the simplicity with which he lives. What kind of simplicity? Knowing one’s duty and doing it, step by step, as if by second-nature.
One is not quite sure yet whether he does ordinary things extraordinarily, or extraordinary things ordinarily.
Or perhaps both.
Meanwhile, the pundits are all trying to ‘peg’ or label or pigeon-hole a ‘free bird’ who nevertheless eludes all snares and stares — certainly of the secular kind. Some are calling him a liberal. Others a conservative. A few, traditional. Many more orthodox.
By the way he lives and moves, I say beware of such reductive labels. Pope Francis is going to surprise everybody. His best ‘firsts’, one already has reason to suspect, are yet to come. Not innovations of doctrine or acts. (Please God, all that sort of rot we shall be spared this Lent after 50 years of its fast-food diet.) But rather firsts of an entirely different sort.
As though by the transparency of his presence, it already seems that the singular grace of the Petrine duty to “confirm the brethren” (after all, Peter came to Rome to reach the whole world) those who have never come close to ‘mere Christianity’ before — including many ‘practicing Catholics’ — are going to get an eye-full.
Pope Francis might be called “his own man”. That is, if it were not already so evident that he is God’s man first.
Indeed, paradoxical as it may seem given his closeness to the people, reaching out to all, mingling among them, his motto might as well be “noli me tangere“.