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Pope Francis Brings ‘New Gifts’ to the Future of the Catholic Church

March 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Pope Francis is known as a humble man, invested in issues of poverty, who is socially progressive and doctrinally conservative. Ray Suarez talks to Chester Gillis of Georgetown University and Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK, a social justice organization, about how the new pontiff will help shape the Catholic Church.
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RAY SUAREZ: And for that, we’re joined by Chester Gillis, a dean and professor of theology at Georgetown University. He has written extensively on the history of the papacy and Catholicism. And Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of Network, a progressive Catholic organization which promotes social justice.

Well, the new pope joked that the fellow cardinals went to the ends of the earth to find him. He is the first pope from the global south. In his context, Sister, what does it mean to be socially progressive and doctrinally conservative?

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL, NETWORK: I think in the Argentine context, especially in the global south, it means to be keenly aware of the suffering of people at the margins of society.

He has spoken very strongly against the income disparities, against the concentration of wealth in the north by First World countries, against the consequences, the adverse consequences of globalization and globalized trade for people who are poor.

And then he is apparently very conservative on some of the social issues. And — but that’s very consistent with this whole idea that it’s lifting up people in poverty is the key. That’s where Jesus went, that’s where Jesus was. And so I think he lives — and it’s interesting that he picked the name Francis, because that — Francis was the most radical to reject the riches of his time and to embrace the whole concept of voluntary poverty, care for those at the margins.

It’s a significant step, I think.

RAY SUAREZ: Dean, he comes from a background of supervising priests, rather than being a theologian or intellectual of the church. What practical aspect — what practical application does that have in his new job?

CHESTER GILLIS, Georgetown University: Well, that means he’s a pastoral person, which is probably a good thing for the church.

He’s also a Jesuit. And Jesuits are intellectuals, all of them virtually, and a very powerful order in the church. So I think he has both sides. He has the pastoral side. And Jesuits are contemplatives in action. So there’s a contemplation side and a spiritual side, but it is the activity side that has to manifest itself in culture and society. And it has to be on the side of the poor, the preferential option for the poor, as has been said.

I think that’s part of his orientation. He supervised priests, so he knows how to run an organization. He knows how to manage people. He knows the pressures of that job. But they haven’t — he hasn’t let that go to his head.

RAY SUAREZ: At the election of the last pope, Benedict XVI, it was observed because of his age that the electors were anticipating a short papacy. And, in fact, that’s what they got. But Pope Francis is 76 years old, Sister. Did they just do it again?

SIMONE CAMPBELL: Well, I think they did just do it again. But I think this is also an important step, because in our fast-paced globalized world, I think maybe the electors have some insights that a very long papacy like with John Paul had a lot of positives, but there was a lot of anguish at the end of the papacy, and a lot of things went undone, because we always need a variety of skills and a variety of gifts to make a difference.

And I think that’s what they’re choosing, some new gifts, but not for too long.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s been stories of financial mismanagement, decline of the church in the West, and, of course, the ongoing unfolding, consistent revelation of the sexual abuse scandals. What’s job one after the installation?

CHESTER GILLIS: I think that job one is to put a management team in place, so to speak, to make some changes probably, even in the Curia, and put people in whom he trusts and who will make some changes in those structures and maybe even to more transparency in the Roman structure.

You know, who would want this job, you wonder. You say, my goodness, it’s not an easy task. And you’re right. He’s coming in at a very difficult time. This is not coming in when things are smooth. So he can make a big difference in a short period of time, potentially.

SIMONE CAMPBELL: Yes.

CHESTER GILLIS: And part of that would be by what kind of management structure and with whom he surrounds himself to manage the affairs of the Vatican.

RAY SUAREZ: But that’s a tough thing when you’re coming in from the outside, isn’t it?

SIMONE CAMPBELL: Oh, it is extremely difficult coming from the outside.

But the thing that he brings, it appears, is a sense of humility, a sense of humor, which is wonderful, and the capacity to welcome in everyone to the center. And I think it’s that capacity to welcome people in that will allow him to form a management team that can do something different.

He comes from a democratic country, which is — has been — is led by a woman, so he is used to having other voices to deal with. So I think the fact that he understands democracy, knows the value of various voices, has worked with strong women will allow us then to create a good team that is diverse and that is pastoral as well as administratively sound.

RAY SUAREZ: His home, Latin America, is also the home of a third of the world’s Catholics. But it’s also a place that’s seen a lot of decline in the church, a lot of move to Protestant churches, to a more exuberant form of worship, great inroads in the church.

Evangelism is being talked about a lot, that is, spreading the faith. He’s been living that struggle, hasn’t he, Dean?

CHESTER GILLIS: Yes.

And the evangelism has really been an evangelism to Catholics, ironically. Evangelism traditionally has always been trying to convert people to Catholicism. In this case, it’s the bring people back to Catholicism. As you suggested, in Latin America, there’s a great migration to evangelical Protestantism that’s problematic.

In Europe, there’s just a decline in religious interest and people just drop out. So to evangelize in both contexts is a very important element of the church. And someone who can carry that message, but also has a certain credibility about his own character and humility, I think, will help in that.

But it’s a struggle. It’s not going to be easy. This is not going to turn around on a dime.

RAY SUAREZ: Sister, what are your hopes now, as we’re approaching the installation of a new pope, the seating and anointing of a new pope and Easter?

SIMONE CAMPBELL: Well, I live in hope. And I think this peace of evangelization is really important, because it’s also that the people will evangelize our leaders.

Our leaders within the church need to hear from ordinary people. And that, I believe, Pope Francis has already been touched by them. But he will now need to be touched by the whole world. And when you touch the pain of the world as real, there is a solidarity, an engagement with the Gospel, a living faith that blossoms forth. And I guess I just pray for a moment of blossoming.

RAY SUAREZ: It must be a shocking thing to go to Rome and then find out you’re really never going to live in your home again.

SIMONE CAMPBELL: You’re not going home.

RAY SUAREZ: You’re not going home.

CHESTER GILLIS: You’re not going home. When you’re elected, that’s it. Somebody brings your belongings from your home country, and you are — and you never have the same identity. You will be known as Francis for the rest of your life.

And there’s — the first thing the cardinals do is pledge obedience to him. Now, these were his colleagues and his peers a few hours ago, and now he’s the Holy Father, as he’s referred to the in Rome all the time, the Holy Father. It has to be an astonishing change for him. I’m sure he contemplated it to some degree, but I’m sure it’s humbling.

I hope it’s humbling. And it’s probably a little bit frightening, saying, I hope I can do this. I hope I have the courage to do this, I have the insight, the spirituality, and the stamina to do the job.

RAY SUAREZ: Dean Gillis, Sister Simone, good to talk to you both.

SIMONE CAMPBELL: Thank you.

CHESTER GILLIS: Thank you, Ray.