Wed | Apr 25, 2018

Servant of the Servants

Published:Friday | March 15, 2013 | 12:00 AM

By Peter Espeut

So Catholics now have a new spiritual leader. It is not going to be business as usual. By all accounts, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is a remarkable man, and I believe exciting times are ahead!

Upon his elevation as spiritual leader of the Catholic Church in Buenos Aires, he declined to move into the palatial residence of the archbishop, but chose to live in a small apartment in the city. He also declined to use the chauffeured limousine provided for the archbishop and took the bus and the metro (subway) to work, rubbing shoulders daily with his fellow Argentineans.

Yesterday, on his first morning as Pope, he went to the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome to pray, declining to use the usual papal transportation. It seems that he is not afraid to depart from customary practice.

The first thing that moved me was that he chose the name Francis, after St Francis of Assisi, the well-known 13th-century church reformer. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, Francis lived the high-spirited life of a typical wealthy young man, until one day in a broken-down old church, he thought he heard the Lord Jesus speak to him from the crucifix hanging behind the altar: "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."

He did repair that particular chapel, but by his life and example, he helped to reform the Catholic Church of his day, which had gone off track.

Renouncing his father's wealth, he lived a life of extreme poverty, begging at people's doors; he spent his life helping the poor, and thousands followed him (and still do today) as Franciscan friars and nuns. He loved nature, and St Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of the environment and of environmental activists.

And Francis of Assisi was a deacon - a word which means 'servant' in Greek - and he declined to go on to the priesthood because he saw himself as a servant of the people and the church. One of the titles of the Pope is 'Servant of the Servants of God'.


For a Pope to take the name of Francis in these times is a tremendous statement of intent, for our church today is struggling under the weight of various scandals which are rooted in the improper and sometimes criminal behaviour of some Catholic priests and bishops. We need a new Francis of Assisi to get us back on track.

In 2007, Cardinal Bergoglio denounced what he characterised as a cultural tolerance of child abuse and "discarding of the elderly". He spoke strongly against the abuse of children, decried their exploitation, calling it "demographic terrorism". I expect him to take a no-nonsense approach to the sex-abuse scandals, and to make it easier to defrock guilty clerics.

At a meeting of Latin American bishops in 2007, Cardinal Bergoglio said, "[W]e live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least" and that "[t]he unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers".

His love for the poor does not mean that his preoccupation is with charity and handouts; he has been quoted as saying that "extreme poverty and unjust economic structures that cause great inequalities" are violations of human rights. So he is a defender of social justice, in the tradition of the great leaders of the Latin American church like Oscar Romero. Pope Francis will no doubt advance the social teaching of the church, which I look forward to.

The fact that the cardinals locked in conclave have elected such a man to lead us says a lot about the cardinals themselves. Cardinal Bergoglio was the runner-up at the last conclave at which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - a Vatican bureaucrat - was elected as Pope Benedict XVI.

The election of Pope Francis after only five ballots is a sign that his support base had not deserted him during the years of Pope Benedict; clearly, among the cardinals there is a swing away from the bureaucrats in the Vatican curia towards a more pastoral approach to church leadership.

Although he has proven ability as an administrator, Pope Francis is primarily a pastor, a shepherd close to his flock. He is likely to tame the Vatican bureaucracy, which will have far-reaching effects upon the global Catholic Church.

Peter Espeut is a Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to