Seated in the long rows of red-draped tables set up in the Sistine Chapel to accommodate the election of a pope, the cardinals of the Catholic Church listened as the votes they had each just cast were read aloud solemnly. Among them was Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina. Bergoglio had been a front-runner in the papal election of 2005, the one from which Joseph Ratzinger had ultimately emerged as Pope Benedict XVI. But it was eight years later now, and Bergoglio was an older man, 76 years old. Especially following Benedict’s surprise resignation for reasons of the decreased stamina that comes with age, neither Bergoglio nor anyone else his age had a place on almost any of the familiar shortlists of papabili that were so popular in the press in recent weeks.
And yet, here he was, listening to the votes being read aloud on the second day of voting, hearing his name repeated again and again. “Bergoglio…. Bergoglio…. Bergoglio….” Every man in the room knew that they would have a pope when a single name drew two-thirds of the vote – in this case, 77 votes.
Sitting beside Bergoglio as his name was repeated dozens of times – interspersed occasionally with the names of a couple of other men in the room – his longtime friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes squeezed Begoglio’s wrist gently. Then came the moment when his name was read for the seventy-seventh time. Bergoglio would be Pope. Applause broke out among the cardinals. With obvious emotion, as the reading of votes continued, Hummes hugged his friend and kissed him on the cheek. Looking Bergoglio in the eyes, Hummes said quietly, “Don’t forget the poor.”
Begoglio himself publicly recounted this moment just three days later, in his very first major papal audience. He did so in an address to the 6,000 journalists who covered the conclave, as he offered an explanation for the name he had chosen to take as pope. He recounted Cardinal Hummes’s warm and supportive gestures and the comment he made at the moment of his election. Then the new Pope Francis continued:
And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man. How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!
In that handful of sentences, explaining a choice he knew would help define his pontificate, the Pope mentions several central elements of Catholic social teaching: the challenge of peace, care for the environment, and poverty. Even as he was being elected and certainly as he was making the first and foundational choice of his new ministry, these principles were very much on his mind. Since that day, he has shown himself to be very intentionally an apostle of Catholic social teaching, and it is precisely these words and efforts that have grabbed the attention of the world, even among many who would not know the meaning of the phrase “Catholic social teaching.”
But among the many facets of Catholic social teaching, it is the issue of poverty that has most clearly been on his mind. It is my conviction that an “option for the poor” has quickly taken a central place in the papal ministry of Pope Francis. That’s the point I intend to dig into in the occasional series of blog posts I introduce here. I will explore what exactly is meant by the phrase; how we see it expressed in the teaching, the decisions, and the daily life of Pope Francis; how what he is doing may be said to lack in some ways a full “option for the poor”; and its significance in the life of the Church and the world today.
I call this series of posts “occasional” because I will post them as I complete them. They may even get some revision after posting, if it seems helpful as I progress along. Though my plan may develop, what I have in mind now is a series of six posts:
Part one: these introductory remarks
Part two: What is an “option for the poor”?
Part three: Pope Francis’s option for the poor
Part four: The Pope on “savage capitalism”
Part five: Continuity and newness: the Pope’s option for the poor in the context of recent history and Catholic social teaching
Part six: Is it a true option for the poor?
Posting them once a week for six weeks would be ideal, but life has a way of throwing things in one’s way, so let’s see how it goes. Thanks for your interest.
UPDATE: See also Part 2 (“What Is an Option for the Poor?”), Part 3 (“Leading a Pastoral Revolution”), Part 4 (“The Pope on ‘Savage Capitalism'”), Part 5 (“Continuity and Newness”), and Part 6 (“Is It a True Option for the Poor?”).