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Mar 14, 2013

Pope Francis: an authentic moral leader for our times?

Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been named Pope Francis. Catholics around the world will unite behind a man of authenticity, writes long-time Vatican watcher Michael Hewitt-Gleeson.


The white smoke clears to reveal Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. First impressions?

  • The conclave is a very astute gathering of electors.
  • They have elected a “good” pope, a pope for the poor. Exactly the kind of choice that is most needed for the current times. Back to basics; back to the founder; simplicity; clarity. An authentic moral leader for the time.
  • The speed of the election. This may indicate their clarity of choice in that the conclave wanted a “good” pope. Not a politician nor a theologian but an imitator of Christ.
  • His chosen name, which the cardinals could not have guessed, further backs the wisdom of their choice.
  • His dress when he makes his first appearance — no tiaras or ermine-lined stole but a simple white cassock.

Let’s explore these first signs to see what they might tell us …

Our cardinal in Australia is a controversial figure who is widely liked and disliked at the same time, but no one is arguing he is not an educated, intelligent and clever man with lots of experience in the corridors of power. This can reasonably be said about anyone who has reached the high position of cardinal. Put crudely, one is not going to find too many bogans in the College of Cardinals.

Whatever our individual preferences for particular cardinals, the fact is that when they all sit together as electors in the Sistine Chapel, in conclave, we can know that it is one of the most astute, clever and highly experienced think tanks that the world can muster. More thoughtful than the United Nations, more experienced than Canberra, more diverse than the G20.

Compared to previous conclaves, this event had several weeks of meetings and gatherings between small and larger groups of cardinals. Of course, this drove the Curia nuts as they had put forward a very tight and hurried agenda to avoid precisely that. The last thing the Curia wanted was the cardinals talking to one another outside of their agenda. But the cardinals, as they flocked to Rome, insisted. They said we don’t want to be rushed. We want to get to know one another. We want to discuss the current and recent crises of the church. We want to talk, talk, talk. And they did. This was one of the first signs that this conclave would not be a rubber stamp to the Vatican bureaucracy.

They chose an outlier. He was not papabile. He was not one of the top 10 favourites. He was not on any of the favourites lists either in the media or the bookmakers. They chose a “good” pope. Not a prince, not a politician, not even a theologian but a pope for the poor. Why? It seems an inspired choice from a very alert group of electors who are clear that the future of the church is in asserting its moral leadership.

“Dare we hope for an authentic moral leader for our times? Could it really be Francis?”

Much of the recent commentary has been about the need for contemporary reform and for cleaning up Vatican bureaucracy but the strategic need for this unique institution is to get back to basics. To reflect the image of its founder.

This was a fast election. Faster than most since the average over the last 100 years has been three-plus days. We can speculate that this may indicate that the cardinals were on the same wavelength by the time they were locked in the chapel. Their weeks of meetings, discussions and private conversations had served them well. It was time. Time for the church to have a good pope. A moral leader, like a Mandela or perhaps a Pope John, who can, by actions not words, capture the imagination of the world. Simplicity. Clarity. Authenticity. These are the qualities that reflect their historical founder.

“I will be called Francis!” This is the first decision made by the new pope on his acceptance of election. Not Pius. Not John Paul. Not Benedict. But Francis, after Francis of Assisi. The choice of his regnum, the name under which he will rule, is the very first policy decision a new pope makes. So far, it’s the biggest single indication of his intentions. He chose the name of a poor but eloquent street-preacher. I suppose he could hardly have chosen the name of Jesus II but in choosing Francis he chose the very next best thing. No clearer message could be sent.

Except that there’s more. Saint Peter’s square is filled with thousands of Romans and pilgrims and tourists. The exclamation rings out across the square — “Habemus Papam!” (“We have a Pope!”) — and the crowd roars in expectation and enthusiasm for this thrilling moment. And lo and behold a figure emerges in just a white cassock. He gives a humble blessing and then stands quietly and silently before the city and the world. No histrionics. No regal arm-waving. No triple-tiara nor gold-encrusted mitre. Not even wearing the traditional ermine-lined stole of Europe’s last absolute monarch. Just the very minimum. A small white zuchetto on his head and the basic white cassock. Stunning in its debut. Nostalgic in its pastoral symbolism.

My favourite movie of 2012 was Searching For Sugarman and I was immediately connected to the extraordinary scene at the end of the movie when the lost artist, Rodriguez, appears before his fans in South Africa. Humbly he stands there for 10 minutes until the tumultuous applause of hope and appreciation from his followers finally calms down.

Dare we hope for an authentic moral leader for our times? Could it really be Francis?

Stay tuned to the most interesting show on earth: The Vatican.

*Michael Hewitt-Gleeson is a cognitive scientist at the School of Thinking and has been a Vaticanologist for 30 years


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39 thoughts on “Pope Francis: an authentic moral leader for our times?

  1. cairns50

    surely you have more important things to write and comment about than putting who the new pope is as front page on this issue

    have a look at how religion has turned tony abbott out to be a right wing religious bigot and hes from the same church as the pope

    stop giving these people oxygen

  2. cairns50

    why is my comment awaiting moderation

    sure not because i used the terms right wing religious b..ot ?

    your kidding

  3. Phen

    Congratulations Pope Francis!

    And cheer up cairns50

  4. mikeb

    @cairns50 – if you are not interested then just ignore it. Spread your ill wishes somewhere else.

    As for the actual story – well I’m no papist but from what I’ve read he might be a good, albeit conservative choice. The ostentatious displays of wealth & pomp always grated with me so I hope he also introduces a culture of humbleness and simplicity to the vatican – a bit like his chosen namesake. The church at the coal face runs on the smell of an oily rag so why should the vatican bathe in gold and mink?

  5. Will

    “the fact is that when they all sit together as electors in the Sistine Chapel, in conclave, we can know that it is one of the most astute, clever and highly experienced think tanks that the world can muster. More thoughtful than the United Nations, more experienced than Canberra, more diverse than the G20.”

    What a load of bollocks! You have simply equated the highest levels of Catholic-friendly theological literacy, and political acumen sufficient to ascend the Church hierarchy, as being synonymous with universal wisdom at the pinnacle of human experience.

    Sorry, but that is an appalling over-simplification which cannot go unchallenged. Nobody would contest that there are very learned men amongst the Cardinals, some of them may even be very wise, but you go well beyond that by glibly assigning them unassailable experience and thoughtfulness simply by virtue of the office they hold.

    Sorry, but I can’t agree. I would rather listen to the world’s top diplomats, central bankers, academics, lawyers, scientists – you name it – than one random Cardinal simply because he is a Cardinal. For a start, you’re more likely to be working on real merit as selection is made on merit and the pool of candidate includes the remaining 51% of population, and men who have active sexual relationships.

  6. Madonna

    Could it really be Francis? Only time will tell Michael…
    Prodigal daughter, “there’s always hope”.
    As a lapsed Catholic the first time I saw Pope Francis addressing his flock I felt inspired to return to Mass…
    With a Jesuit background Pope Francis symbolises wisdom and practicality. I hope his leadership invokes a renewed spiritual awakening within the hearts of all his followers.
    Hopefully he will also be the healing ointment for those afflicted by debauchery and criminal practices within the Holy sanctions of the church.
    Time will tell.

  7. Mark Upoli

    I take a different view altogether.

    The question that should be asked, considering the biblical chronological,prophetic and historical relevance, is, is he the antichrist or at least the False Prophet who upholds a yet unseen antichrist?

    Is this a stupid question? Beware a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

    The real Christ, Jesus, said that those who uphold the Torah/Law ( Matt 5:17-25 )are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven and those who don’t are the least.

    The Pope, any Pope, as the cornerstone and central vessel of christianity condemns and relegates the Torah/Law as finished and redundant to a bye-gone era. Jesus says the opposite. Jesus says it will never disappear until heaven and earth pass away. Has the anvil dropped?

    Even the apostle Paul warns us that first ( prior to the return of Jesus )that the Lawless/Torahless one, must come before the real deal…and the whole world will fall for him. ( 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10 )

    Don’t blame me, I am just telling you what is written…if you believe it.

  8. Ian Roberts

    More diverse? They’re all Catholics and male.

  9. Mike Flanagan

    The assumption that this new man of mystical tongues and two thousand year old fashon symbols has renamed himself wth the name of Francis of Padua or Assisi, lacks substantiation.
    The conferror was one of the Abbott’s revered jesuits and Frank Xavior was an early Spanish leader of that sect.
    Tony Abbott must be ruefully questioning his early career joice, built on the belief that jesuits couldn’t make the grade to the top, as yet further evidence of his personal flawed leadership ambitions.

  10. Venise Alstergren

    The author of this rambling dissertation clearly loves drowning in sugar, disingenuous rhetoric, and pure cant.
    “A pope for the poor”. He declares. Doubtless the new Jesuit pope will urge the poverty-stricken to use birth control? Oh yeah?

    The new pope is humble and back home in Buenos Aires he took the bus. Doubtless pope Francis will order dust sheets to be draped over the Vatican’s priceless art works?

    Francis has named himself after a saint who understood animals. And, no doubt, this will lead Francis to understand that almost eight billion people inhabit this fragile planet and if we want to see an easing in the world’s emissions it will need the active participation of his 1.2 billion Catholics.

    I’m sure we needed to know the intellectual quotient of the curia ?! Ha! But the fact that Australia’s next leader will be a Jesuit who is anything but humble and is a permanent threat to our environment, and wears his Jesuit Catholic beliefs like a matador flagging a bull, makes me wonder if there are any non brainwashed thinkers in the Catholic Church.

    Our times DON’T NEED a “moral pope”. “Our times” need a man of “OUR TIMES”-a man who will drag the Catholic church into the 21st century.

    What on earth compelled Crikey to feature this mushy, sugary pap as the lead story? My cat could have done a better job.

  11. Mike Flanagan

    That should read “career choice”. My apologies.

  12. Venise Alstergren

    MIKE F: The Pope is infallible. Yet he is elected by a very large group of Cardinals-of which he is one-who are demonstrably fallible. How then does the Pope suddenly become infallible?

    I wonder how long my main comment will be kept in ‘moderation?’ Hours, days, ever?

  13. Bryan Havenhand

    Let’s not forget his muddy relationships and arrangements with the Argentine military dictatorship in the late 1970s. See http://www.businessinsider.com/pope-francis-has-links-to-dirty-war-2013-3

  14. Merve

    Our cardinal in Australia is a moron who does not accept science when it comes to global warming.

  15. Mike Flanagan

    “..a very large group of cardinals” Yes discounting their accumulated and collective ‘good life’ obesity the catholic voting populace could be fitted in a couple of minicabs.
    It is all done by mirrors! Where do you think Abbott gets his science from? Non other than the master illusionist, Georgie Pell, the proud possessor of the last Circus Oz clown costume job lot

  16. j n

    Come on, these cardinals are well passed their prime, and hardly intellectual. Listen to George Pell talk about any modern issue (from politics to science). The man either doesn’t understand a thing he is trying to talk about, or he is a terrible communicator.

    They are great professional bulls…ters, I’ve give them that. But so are politicians and business directors. Doesn’t make them smart.

  17. Venise Alstergren

    MODERATOR: When you moderate me it is always for a minimum time of four hours. I fail to see how a criticism of the article concerned could merit such censorship.

  18. Kfix

    “and men who have [openly acknowledged] active sexual relationships”

    There Will, I fixed it for you.

  19. Kfix

    It’s so sad. I was educated by Sisters of Mercy nuns, MSC brothers and Jesuit priests, some of whom were among the finest people I have ever met, and none of whom did anything terribly wrong – in my experience anyway.

    I ended up an atheist anyway, in part because they generally concentrated more on teaching me to be a good person than they did on the dogma.

    Such wonderful and caring teachers are so badly let down by their leadership. Look at what has happened in West End and Toowoomba over the last few years to priests and bishops who cared more about the people around them than about the archaic and pointless discrimination that the church hierarchy promotes. So sad.

  20. cairns50

    mikeb i did not wish the new pope any ill will, i just made the point about why the story about him being elected was given so much prominence

    im cherry enough phen good luck to you to each there own

  21. Jesse mandragoria

    “no one is arguing he is not an educated, intelligent and clever man”

    pffffffffffttttttt….hahahaa, there’s PLENTY of people arguing, successfully, just that. as a matter of fact you don’t even need to argue, just switch on his last q&a performance, Q.E.D.

  22. Moira Smith

    Ha Ha Ha: ‘one of the most astute, clever and highly experienced think tanks that the world can muster’ – Totally agree with Will. A group of the world’s most powerful men. And aren’t astute and clever also necessary qualities for those who will be powerful one day (given that they aren’t allowed, in this case, to be rich) ?

  23. philippa johnson

    Surely he has chosen his name Francis I after St Francis Xavier who was a friend of, and among the first disciples of Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuit Order? Francis Xavier was a scholar and an academic and later became a missionary to the East. I think he was from a wealthy Spanish or Basque family, but was greatly respected for his humility.

  24. Moira Smith

    MODERATOR: Let Venise speak !!! NOW !!! C’mon she’s been around here even longer than me ….. Let’s hear what she has to say about this world-shaking history-making event !!!!!
    (And then at least we’ll know whether we agree with her or not. Fair goes.)

  25. Moira Smith

    ‘They chose an outlier …Why? It seems an inspired choice from a very alert group of electors who are clear that the future of the church is in asserting its moral leadership’ – and in appointing a ‘cleanskin’ who can draw a line between the moral/s**ual abuses of the past and the new, rehabilitated, c*libate kid-safe clergy. One hopes.

  26. drsmithy

    The Pope is infallible. Yet he is elected by a very large group of Cardinals-of which he is one-who are demonstrably fallible. How then does the Pope suddenly become infallible?

    The same way the referee is always right ?

  27. Mike Flanagan

    Nearly all the religous sects lost their social responsibilities some decades or more ago and today are absorbed by the management and maintaining their assets,
    The roman catholic church have just appointed a new CEO to oversee the largest real estate conglomerate in the world and their massive art and banking assets.
    So why the press, and Crikey in particular should be so absorbed by this changing of the deck chairs at this ponzi system, arbitarily inflicted on their followers, is beyond my reasoning

  28. Andy Notovas

    Who’s fooling who here?

    Francis of Assisi was a man who turned his back on fine clothing, fatty food, money, false religion and anything that represented a pompous way of life.

    His love and appreciation of animals was just an extension of a changed spirit.

    Most Popes, current and past, have represented a billion dollar commercial institution, a complete antithesis to the original position of Francis of Assisi.

  29. Jay Pleski

    “More thoughtful than the United Nations, more experienced than Canberra, more diverse than the G20.”

    Yet not one has personally experienced the pain and fear of childbirth, the daily struggle to live and exist in peace as an out-and-proud gay or transgender person, or trying to survive in a state of true poverty and powerlessness.

    Personally I doubt the CV is suited to the original selection criteria.

  30. matthew cox

    ‘The most interesting show on Earth?’ Ha.

  31. Grant Hall

    @Mark Upoli, Shalom, I am a Torah-observant CHRISTIAN who lives in Australia. I really appreciated your comment and would like to extend my hand to you in fellowship. You can contact me via email at

    grant hall 1983 @ gmail . com (remove the spaces)

    Or by looking me up on Facebook.

    I hope to hear from you soon.

    May God bless you and keep you, Shalom.

  32. Venise Alstergren

    GRANT HALL: What is it that makes you religionists sound so sanctimonious?

    “”and would like to extend my hand to you in fellowship.”” being a prime example. Why not say, ‘I enjoyed your comment and would like to meet you.’

  33. Karen Hewitt

    I don’t know much about the bible at all, I mean, who does? ..huh!

    But I could never work out why main-stream christianity ignore the very key and essential aspect of their own doctrines.

    They say that the writings of Paul are anti Torah. This is bollocks. Paul says somewhere in Galations that ” the Torah is just and good “.

    As an orthodox J-w, Paul never would have said as much.

    Paul spoke against perverting the Torah into ultra legalism and the binding of people in chains with harsh interpretations and human traditions. How can something that is eternal disappear? How can something that was given yesterday be taken away today?

    I read somewhere where the sum total of the Torah is Love. Can’t remember where it was though.

  34. Venise Alstergren

    KAREN: No religious tract is about love. How can it be when it inspires such hatred?

    The Christian bible should be read for historical interest and/or some superb literature. And, as with the Koran, it inspires hatred, war and intolerance. I know nothing about the Torah. I suspect it too is full of venom; three of the world’s most important religions came from the desert. Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Collectively they are responsible for the death of millions of people. If this is love please give me hatred.

  35. Venise Alstergren

    KAREN:The Christian bible should be read for historical reasons and for some superb literature.

    Three of the world’s major religions came from the desert, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. I know nothing of the Torah,
    but if Islam and Christianity have caused the death of millions of people, it’s a fair bet the Torah inspires similar feelings. Look around you at the death and despair caused by religion and ask yourself if this is all caused by love? If it is, then give me hatred.

  36. Andy Notovas

    @Karen Hewitt

    Shut up!

  37. Karen Hewitt


    You need to be specific. Quote me sections, articles or verses or whatever, then maybe I can give you an informed opinion. But to just take a broadbrush across all religions is a bit too simplistic.

    (it’s a fair bet the Torah inspires similar feelings.)

    Again, times and dates please. If you are referring to the instructions to the Isr–lites to destroy the Jebusites, Moabites, Hittites, etc etc it might help to consider that they practised child sacrifice, incest and worshipped the gods all these discusting practises.

    @ Andy Notovas

    I’ll shut up when you put up.

  38. Venise Alstergren

    KAREN HEWITT: Specific about what? I gave you my opinion. I said, ‘Look around you at the death and despair caused by religion and ask yourself if this is all caused by love? If it is, then give me hatred.’MY OPINION.

    If you wish to portray the past ten thousand years of history as being 10,000 years of uninterrupted peace, and religious organisations being the loving cement which binds mankind together, do so at your own peril. Just be prepared for the rest of humanity to be laughing at you.

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