There are two ways to look at the election of Pope Francis. He takes the name of the famous saint, whose life was defined by a vision in which he was commanded by a crucifix to “rebuild my Church, which is in ruins.” That name, combined with rumors that Cardinal Bergoglio impressed his fellow Cardinals at preconclave meetings with his willingness to clean up the Curia, may be a signal that reform is on the way.
His choice of name may also signal an affiliation with the Jesuit saint Francis Xavier, an exemplary evangelist and missionary. Cardinal Bergoglio is known as a simple, humble person who eschewed the pomp of his high office in the church. Until now, he has lived in a simple apartment and cooked his own meals. He worked to prevent priests from abandoning their parishes and the sacraments entirely for revolutionary political activism in Argentina, when liberation theology was ascendant.
But the other way to look at the dawn of this papacy is that it is one more in the pile of recent Catholic novelties and mediocrities. He is the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit to be pope, and the first to take the name Francis. And so he falls in line with the larger era of the church in the past 50 years which has been defined by ill-considered experimentation: a “pastoral” ecumenical council at Vatican II, a new synthetic vernacular liturgy, the hasty revision of the rules for almost all religious orders within the church, the dramatic gestures and “saint factory” of Pope John Paul II’s papacy, along with the surprise resignation of Benedict XVI. In this vision, Benedict’s papacy, which focused on “continuity,” seems like the exception to an epoch of stunning and unsettling change, which—as we know—usually heralds collapse.