Latin America is the demographic center of world-wide Catholicism and so it is fitting that the part of the world with the most Catholics – over 425 million – offers one of its own to lead the church. Francis is both “Jorge,” (Spanish for “George”) and “Bergoglio,” a name from his Italian immigrant parents. Like the title “Latin America,” his name resonates with two heritages: Europe and the New World. Some may see this hybridism as a defect because it cuts his heritage in half. However, others interpret our culture as richer because of the mixing: the Mexican José Vasconcelos even called it “cosmic.” The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset agreed, admitting in his 1921 book, “España Invertebrada” that Latin America had surpassed Spain in faithfulness to its cultural identity. And that identity was Catholic from the start.
We Latinos and Latinas do not usually make the mistake of identifying “America” with “the United States.” Even when born in the U.S. as citizens, we can claim a share in Latin America’s Spanish Catholicism and indigenous culture. After all, Texas, New Mexico, California and Puerto Rico were Latin America before invasion and annexation by the United States. Irish Catholics remind us every St. Patrick’s Day of how stubbornly a conquered people cling to culture and religion.
As a Jesuit, Pope Francis shares in his order’s achievements in Latin American history that has suffered from colonialism and exploitation. Early Jesuits were martyred defending the Guarani missions against the kings of Spain and Portugal. This is the tradition of Pope Francis
But traditions obligate us to learn from the past, not simply repeat it. During the 1970s in Argentina’s “Dirty War,” there were guerrilla attacks from the left against the dictatorship, provoking imposition of “law and order” from a right wing military. It was virtually impossible for Argentina’s Catholics to avoid taking sides. But between the Marxist view legitimizing violence that some Jesuits espoused and complicity with the regime on the right, was a middle ground where stood the Jesuit provincial, Jorge Bergoglio. We have only begun to witness the resurrection of complaints about this middle-ground held by Francis. He later testified to Argentina’s investigation that he intended to avoid identifying the Jesuits with a particular political movement and to work behind the scenes to remedy the injustice. It is an approach much like that of Pius XII in dealing with the Nazis at the time of the Holocaust. Call it “the curse of Pius XII” — with similar results.
As cardinal, the pope supported the approach to social justice of Comunio e Liberazione which professes that the political struggle for social justice must start with a communitarian sharing in living the Gospel. While the movement is relatively new, the idea goes back to the apostles (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35), St. Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day. This explains why as cardinal, Pope Francis shunned the episcopal palace in Buenos Aires and chose to live in a simple apartment. It confirms his decision to ride the tram to work rather than ride in a chauffeured limousine. And it represents the approach to social justice that is neither Liberation Theology, when it borrows from Communism, nor Opus Dei, when it flirts with Fascism.
I think as a Latin American, the new pope is rooted in the church of the people and popular religion of our tradition. This contrasts with the Polish John Paul II’s focus on papal pronouncements and top-down control of grass-roots Catholic engagement. While his goals remain the same, the Latin American Pope Francis dances to a different drummer in communicating this commitment. We Latino Catholics living in the U.S. can now point to the rhythm of our Catholic faith as a model for all the church.
This new pope is likely to turn the meaning of “hierarchy” upside down. Before he imparted his papal blessing, he first asked the public to pray for him. Symbolically, he affirmed that we people are the church and the pope is our servant, a message sometimes missing from institutional Catholicism during the past 30 years. It represents one of the ways we Latino Catholics are different: Viva la différence!