Did the Catholic Church just do something right?

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I am not Catholic—in fact I am not religious at all—and, frankly, I have a fair amount of contempt for many of the actions and inactions of the Catholic Church. But as I watched the ceremony announcing Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina as the new Pope Francis, I had to grab a Kleenex (OK, I admit it—more than one).

Pope Francis first greeted the crowd as brothers and sisters and made a mild joke about the distance his brother cardinals had to travel to find someone for the job. Then, before he blessed the people, he asked them to bless him.

He set just the right tone—familiar and ordinary, gentle and humble. But he was not so gentle when last year he accused fellow church officials of hypocrisy. As a Jesuit, Francis is known for his simplicity in daily living, and he regularly ministers to the poor and downtrodden. At a time when many church leaders have forgotten Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized, Bergoglio’s choice of Francis as a name is highly significant.

While Pope Francis is very nearly as conservative as Pope Benedict on social issues such as contraception and gay marriage (far from my own positions), my reaction to him was decidedly different from my reaction to Benedict. I remember hearing the news of the “bulldog’s” election and rolling my eyes—quickly moving on to a more relevant topic of news. But even those of us who are not of the faith can appreciate the influence the Catholic Church has had on the world and recognize the pain the church leadership has caused for so many.

I gave Benedict credit for stepping down when he did. I took him at his word that his body and spirit were too tired to tackle the church’s problems any longer. I’m not so naïve as to think there couldn’t be anything else lurking in the shadows that might have caused him to step down, but I try not to be a cynic. Today I give Benedict even more respect for making the highly irregular decision to resign, to allow a fresh start, to demonstrate his own humility.

If “the Holy Spirit” has done its work well, if Pope Francis can live up to his name, if he can acknowledge and make restitution for the church’s sins, the world may be a more holy—or simply a more whole—place.

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