Mission accomplished. After four years of pontificate, this is the assessment that has been made by the cardinals who brought Jorge Mario Bergoglio to election as pope.
The operation that produced the Francis phenomenon arises from a long time ago, as far back as 2002, when for the first time “L’Espresso” discovered and wrote that the then little-known archbishop of Buenos Aires had leapt to the top of the candidates for the papacy, the real ones, not the figureheads.
It laid the groundwork at the conclave of 2005, when it was to none other than Bergoglio that all the votes were funneled from those who did not want Joseph Ratzinger as pope.
And it came into port at the conclave of 2013, to a large extent because many of his electors still knew very little about that Argentine cardinal, and certainly not that he would deal the Church that “punch in the stomach” spoken of a few days ago by his rival defeated in the Sistine Chapel, Milan archbishop Angelo Scola.
Between Bergoglio and his great electors there was not and is not full agreement. He is the pope of proclamations more than of realizations, of allusions more than of definitions.
There is however one key factor that meets the expectations of a historic turning point of the Church capable of making up for its emblematic lag of “two hundred years” with respect to the modern world that was denounced by Carlo Maria Martini, the cardinal who loved to call himself the “ante-pope,” meaning the anticipator of the one who was to come. And it is the factor of “time.” Which for Bergoglio is a synonym for “initiating processes.” The destination matters little to him, because what counts is the journey.
And in effect it is so. With Francis the Church has become an open construction site. Everything is in movement. Everything is fluid. There is no longer dogma that holds up. One can reexamine everything and act accordingly.
Martini was precisely the sharpest mind of that club of St. Gallen which engineered Bergoglio’s rise to the papacy. It took its name from the Swiss town in which the club met, and included the cardinals Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann, Achille Silvestrini, Basil Hume, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Godfried Danneels. Of these only two, Kasper and Danneels, are still at the forefront, rewarded and treated with the highest regard by Pope Francis, in spite of the fact that they represent two national Churches in disarray, the German and the Belgian, and the latter even fell into discredit in 2010 for how he tried to cover up the sexual misdeeds of one of his protege bishops, whose victim was a young nephew of his.
Bergoglio never set foot in St. Gallen. It was the cardinals of the club who adopted him as their ideal candidate, and he adapted himself perfectly to their plan.
Everyone in Argentina remembers him very differently from how he later revealed himself to the world as pope. Taciturn, withdrawn, somber in expression, reserved even with crowds. Not once did he let slip a word or a gesture of disagreement with the reigning pontiffs, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. On the contrary. He praised in writing the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor,” very severe against the permissive “situational” ethics historically attributed to the Jesuits. He had no qualms over condemning Luther and Calvin as the worst enemies of the Church and of man. He attributed to the devil the deception of a law in favor of homosexual marriage.
But then he sent back home, “to avoid mixed messages,” the Catholics who had gathered outside of parliament for a prayer vigil against the imminent approval of that law. He knelt and had himself blessed in public by a Protestant pastor. He forged friendships with some of them, and also with a Jewish rabbi.
Above all he encouraged his priests not to deny communion to anyone, whether they be married, or cohabiting, or divorced and remarried. With no fuss and without making this decision public, the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires was already doing what the popes at the time prohibited, but he would later permit once he became pope.
In St. Gallen they knew and were taking note. And when Bergoglio was elected, the world learned to recognize him right from the first moment for what he really was. With no more veils.
This commentary was published in “L’Espresso” no. 13 of 2017 on newsstands April 2, on the opinion page entitled “Settimo cielo” entrusted to Sandro Magister.
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One crucial moment of the calculated advancement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy was the final document of the general conference of Latin American bishops in Aparecida, in 2007.
The main author of the document was the archbishop of Buenos Aires at the time, who still continues today, as pope, to recommend it as a valid program for the Church not only in Latin America but all over the world.
Curiously, however, in the paragraphs dedicated to marriage and family there is no reference in the Aparecida document to the “openness” that Bergoglio would later implement as pope, and was already practicing, de facto, in his diocese of Buenos Aires.
In the almost 300 pages of the document, only a few lines concern communion for the divorced and remarried, on which he gives this guideline, in paragraph 437:
“Accompany with care, prudence and compassionate love, following the guidelines of the magisterium (‘Familiaris Consortio’ 84; ‘Sacramentum Caritatis’ 29), couples who live together out of wedlock, bearing in mind that those who are divorced and remarried may not receive communion.”
And in the previous paragraph it states, concerning the support given to policies against life and the family:
“We must adhere to ‘eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that they cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals (‘Sacramentum Caritatis’ 83; ‘Evangelium Vitae’ 74, 74, 89).”
This is what Bergoglio wrote in 2007. But his mind was already elsewhere: on the conviction – criticized by Benedict XVI – that “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” comparable to the meals of Jesus with sinners.
With the practical consequences that he had already drawn as bishop and would later draw as pope.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)
This article originally appeared at L’Espresso. It has been reprinted with the permission of the author.
Sandro Magister is an Italian author and journalist for both L’Esspresso and Chiesa. He is considered among the world’s foremost “Vaticanistas”, the group of highly-respected and expert observers of the Catholic Church, the papacy, and the inner workings of the Vatican.