By Alexandra Le Tellier
2:12 PM PDT, March 14, 2013
Much has been made about Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s dedication to the poor. Almost immediately after becoming the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church and renaming himself Pope Francis, the commentary began, some of it predicting his legacy before his first day on the job. “In the end, it is Pope Francis’s standing as a Latin American and as an advocate of the poor that may well define him,” wrote the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr.
A dedication to the poor, of course, is to be commended. (Sen. Paul Ryan might want to take some notes.) But now that we’ve had a moment to digest this landmark news, opinionators are also calling on Francis to broaden his mission to address profound issues. Beyond leading Catholics, his success, or failure, has the potential to reverberate around the globe and make a lasting impact.
Prevent further abuse of children
Rebuilding is what the church sorely needs, particularly in the United States and Europe, where tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused by priests while church leaders stood by, enabling the crimes and in some cases covering them up.
If Pope Francis wants the world to know that such immoral acts will no longer be tolerated, he has the means. The pontiff can remove those responsible and set rules to ensure that there is no repeat.
More tall orders
The new pope will need to attend to a sexual abuse crisis that has gravely undermined the moral authority of his institution. He will have to deal with a shortage of priests, competition from evangelicals and Pentecostals in the Global South, demands from rank-and-file Catholics for greater accountability in the secretive Vatican and a larger role for women in a church that still elects its popes in all-male conclaves.
Use his global influence wisely
The pope can promote issues to a global audience. With 1.2 billion Catholics scattered across the planet, the pope has a built-in listening audience that rivals that of most heads of state. This means he has the opportunity to push issues into the global spotlight just by mentioning them in his public address. Pope John Paul II, for example, was one of the first world leaders to draw attention to the effects of global climate change when he spoke about the destruction of the natural environment in his 1990 World Day of Peace. He framed the problem as a moral issue that needed global attention, and his words are still frequently cited by environmental activists -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Preach, but also listen
Bergoglio is known to be a good administrator. But he lives very simply in a small apartment and rides a bus. He's well known for his engagement in issues of social justice and in defense of the poor. Indeed, the very name Francis honors St. Francis of Assisi, a person of humility and deep caring. If he is anything like his namesake then this selection is good news indeed. […]
The church, starting with the example of Pope Francis, must embody the virtue of humility. It must listen as well as preach.
Consider also the example of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, who does not own a car and eats with workers. His words match his humble lifestyle. He has said, "(You) may be saying the right things but people will not listen if the manner by which you communicate reminds them of a triumphalistic, know-it-all institution." Amen.
Create a culture of inclusion
Most of all, this Argentine-born pope has an opportunity -- and a platform -- to tell Catholics the world over, “We’re together in this. Come help me.” For those who feel that the infighting in Rome over power and policy does not affect their real lives, Francis may be just the face of real-world experience to convince them that the Church that baptized them cares about their problems after the holy water has dried.
What’s at stake
At 76, Francis is only two years younger than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was when he was elected pope in 2005. That may limit the tenure of a pope whose election already has ignited enthusiasm across Latin America. Whatever the length of his eventual tenure, this pope -- any pope -- will exert influence beyond his flock; non-Catholics will benefit along with Catholics if Francis devotes himself to the causes of peace, human rights and reconciliation.
Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier
Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times