The historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has paved the way for the historic election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the 266th Pontiff of the Catholic Church. Last week, he became the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, the first to come from the Jesuit order, and the first to take the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.
Such firsts have given rise to tremendous expectations. Pope Francis hails from Latin America where 42 percent of the 1.2 billion Catholics live. The hold of the church there remains strong, though it is being whittled down by the rise of secularism and evangelical churches. Pope Francis is expected to revitalize the zeal and commitment of the Catholic faithful, especially in strongholds in the global south, as well as shake off the scandals gripping the Western branches of the church.
Pope Francis has also appeared to have the captured the hearts of millions instantaneously with his down-to-earth, informal ways, reminding many of the beloved St. Francis. He stepped on the balcony to greet the multitudes waiting at St. Peter's Square in simple white cassock minus the formal red papal cape, timidly raising one arm, and simply saying in greeting, "Brothers and sisters, good evening."
He later delivered an impromptu homily at the Sistine Chapel during which he spoke about the need to stay faithful to the teachings of Jesus and eschew demonic worldliness. It was a simple, sincere message spoken off-the-cuff in Italian by a humble parish priest, reflecting Pope Francis's ministry in Argentina where he often went to the streets and reached out to people in the slums. This was also contrasted with the three-page discourse Pope Benedict delivered in Latin during his first mass eight years ago.
It was also widely reported that Pope Francis refused the papal car and returned to his Vatican-run hotel after the election in a bus with other cardinals, saying that he came by bus and will leave by bus. Back in Argentina, he gave up the trappings of being a top leader of the Church, choosing instead to live in a simple apartment, take public transportation, and even cook his own meals.
Jesuits are known to live a life of poverty after their founder St. Ignatius Loyola. Pope Francis's example should inspire the same among the clergy all over the world, especially in the light of the church's perceived luxurious ways and alleged corruption right at the heart of the Holy See. Doing so might mark the beginning of the restoration of the church's credibility, and perhaps the return of millions to the flock.
But there are far greater challenges ahead. After the initial euphoria dies down, the world awaits how Pope Francis will deal with sex abuse scandals and the continued intrasigence of the church toward contraception, divorce, and abortion despite growing public acceptance and practice of these.
These developments reminded me of a bestselling foreign affairs book I have come across with: Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance and Why They Fail, by Amy Chua. The daughter of Filipino-Chinese parents who migrated to the United States, Chua is the John M. Duff, Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School.
In this groundbreaking book, Chua argues that hyperpowers - world-dominant powers economically and militarily superior to any power known to it or not over large populations and territories - flourished by practicing tolerance and inclusion. She cites the Persian, Mongol, Roman, Ming, British, and American empires among the hyperpowers in history.
Though many of these empires were infamous for brutality and atrocities, they exercised relative tolerance after they subjugated their subjects. Chua said they capitalized on the diversity of the peoples they conquered and harnessed their talents and strengths, adding these to their own. The savage Mongol Empire decreed religious freedom and even embraced the richness of Chinese culture and art. The Dutch empire took in refugees of religious persecutions in Europe. On the other hand, there was the ambitious Spanish regime which carried out the Inquisition, and Nazism which sought ethnic purity.
Chua propounds that human capital is the most important factor in empire-building. In harnessing the best talents, empires must often look beyond their dominion and racial or religious biases. She said the United States' success depends heavily on its tolerance and acceptance of a multitude of ethnicities and religions which has allowed it to tap the most talented and skilled to continuously generate innovations.
Religious dogmatism or racial exclusion will merely impede development, never advance it. When our empires, no matter how small, are under threat, we cannot afford to only look inwards for solutions. We must embrace the changing world or risk stagnation and disintegration.
This, I believe, is the biggest challenge before the Catholic church today, how to adapt to change even as it strives to remain true to its principles and values. The demographics of its followers are changing. It is difficult to expect the young, sophisticated, technologically savvy generation to keep the values and practices of its parents' generation. The church - any church for that matter - must remain relevant to its flock to prevent them from going astray.
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