National Press Club

Jesuit says new pope shuns pomp, focuses on poverty

April 4, 2013 | By Sean Lyngaas |

The election last month of Pope Francis represents a renewed focus from the Vatican on the Gospel’s basic teachings regarding poverty and humility, Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, said at an April 3 National Press Club Newsmaker.

The spartan life led by Francis as archbishop of Buenos Aires before becoming pope indicates that he will make poverty alleviation a centerpiece of his agenda, Reese said. The then-archbishop, whose birth name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, reportedly turned down the bishop’s palace for his own apartment and commuted by bus rather than limousine.

Bergoglio was at home in the slums, according to Reese, who just returned from Rome where he was covering the papal election for the National Catholic Reporter. “As cardinal [and] archbishop in Buenos Aires, he spent a lot of time in the slums saying mass, baptizing, preaching the Gospel on street corners,” he added.

If the name Francis – which invokes St. Francis of Assisi, the medieval friar who preached non-violence– is anything to go by, said Reese, the new pope will also emphasize inter-religious dialogue and reforming the Curia, the Vatican’s governing body.

“I think he told us his agenda when he picked his name of Francis,” Reese said.

Francis of Assisi was known for his outreach to Muslims, said Reese, and his namesake appeared to follow suit by calling for friendship with “Muslim sisters and brothers” in his first Good Friday procession last week.

Pope Francis will be keen to start out on better footing with the Muslim world than his predecessor. Benedict XVI drew the ire of Muslim leaders in 2006 when he quoted a medieval text that portrayed Islam negatively.

The College of Cardinals was rife with infighting and the Italian press got carried away by sensationalism when it came time to elect a new pope, according to Reese. After a series of acrimonious speeches, a five-minute time limit was set on remarks, which only one cardinal respected.

“One cardinal got up and gave a talk on the dangers of careerism and ambition and he did it in four minutes and sat down,” Reese recounted. “Now that gets people’s attention. And who was that cardinal? Cardinal Bergoglio.”

Reese painted the picture of a humble man who shuns the pageantry of the office in favor of simple messaging. In the weeks since his inauguration, stories have circulated of Bergoglio paying his own bill in Roman restaurants and balking at the red mozetta, an elbow length cape, traditionally worn at the papal induction. “Each day there was something new like this that the journalists just loved and ran with,” said Reese.

“One of the problems Ratzinger had when he was elected was that everybody already knew him,” Reese said, using Pope Benedict XVI’s birth name. But Bergoglio’s relative anonymity before taking office is allowing him to cultivate a humble aura that could serve his agenda as pope, he added.