The surprising election of Pope Francis plainly was nosurprise to the people who really counted: the cardinals, that is, who swiftly chosehim on the first full day and fifth ballot of the conclave. While not a speedrecord, the timing showed the electors had no difficulty agreeing that theArchbishop of Buenos Aires was the man for the job.
Here was a grievous blow to punditry. In retrospect, itshould have been obvious that Cardinal Bergoglio, a top contender in theconclave of 2005, might well be chosen Pope Benedict XVI's successor. Althoughsome thought that at 76 his age was against him, many cardinals are men intheir 70s who may not see the age question quite that way.
Despite the favorable omens, however, he showed up on fewpre-conclave pundit lists. The best explanation is that journalists don't thinklike cardinals – and vice versa of course, which arguably is a good thing forboth groups.
Now that he's been elected, what will he do? We are told PopeFrancis will be a "pope of the poor." No doubt, but what does thatmean?
Within the limits of his new position, he will remain a manof simple lifestyle. Furthermore, every pope since at least Blessed John XXIIIhas actively championed the cause of the oppressed, and Francis will be noexception. Will he criticize the libertarian economics of the capitalist West,including the United States, as Pope John,Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI all did? And if he does,will Americans who've been saying "Isn't that nice?" about hislifestyle shut their ears to his message? How many will adopt a simplelifestyle themselves?
Blessed John Paul II did pope-watchers a favor by settingout the agenda of his pontificate in considerable detail in his firstencyclical, Redemptor Hominis, whichappeared in March 1979 only five months after his election the previous October.Thereafter he thereafter largely followed its plan. Absent something like thatfrom Francis, it's best to leave the punditry aside for a while and simplywatch what our new Pope says – and, especially, does.
Personnel choices will be of prime importance in the earlygoing. Beyond the staffing of his own household, the first and most importantof these is likely to be for the position of Secretary of State, the Vaticanofficial with the crucial task of overseeing the operations of the Roman Curia.
It would come as a great surprise if Pope Francis chose toretain Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in the job. But will he step outside curialranks to find a successor--and if so, who will it be? Whoever it is, the choicewill have a powerful impact upon the much-discussed issue of Curia reform.
No less an open question is what approach Francis will taketo the Society of Jesus. The election of the first Jesuit pope was greeted withconsternation by some conservatives who view Jesuits with alarm. But it'sentirely possible that as a Jesuit himself, Francis will have a betterunderstanding of conditions in the Society than an outsider would have and willbe better able to address the situation. Here too we can only wait and see whathe does.
The current honeymoon phase will pass quickly. The Pope'sopposition to same-sex marriage and abortion will bring criticism from gayrights and pro-choice groups, and the media will line up with them.
To belabor the obvious: the story of this pontificate hasjust begun.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.