Michael Valpy: Is Pope Francis a harbinger for reform-thirsty Catholics?

With his simple, confessional ways, and what looks like a knack for veering off script, the new pope is reminding some Catholics of John XXIII, the man who sparked the Vatican II reforms, Michael Valpy writes. How far will Francis go?

The comparison being made is to John XXIII, the 'caretaker' pope who sparked Vatican II

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who will be Pope Francis I. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters)

Tom Rosica, the Basilian Roman Catholic priest who heads Toronto-based Salt + Light Catholic television and was seconded to Rome as a Vatican spokesman during the pope-making process, is ultra-careful, a company man when talking about his church. Spontaneity is not his thing.

But, joining Peter Mansbridge as a commentator on CBC-TV, the muzzle slipped from his tongue as Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped onto the balcony above St. Peter's Square.

"John the 23rd," Rosica breathed, followed by something like "This is amazing."

Then he said it again, the name of the 261st pope, the supposed "stop-gap pope" who turned out to be one of the church's greatest reformers.

And as Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires until he became the 266th pope now known as Francis, uttered his first words, "Good evening," Rosica incredulously observed that the new guy was way off script.

A harbinger for reform-thirsty Catholics? Someone off script?

Those old enough to remember John the 23rd's looks and body language would have caught Rosica's comparison instantly — the powerful resemblance of Francis to the unpretentious roly-poly pontiff, the son of an Italian sharecropper, who shook his church to its roots during his five-year reign from 1958 to 1963.

This is the pope who created the reform council known as Vatican II (which led to an accurate comment by the man who succeeded him, Paul VI: "This holy old boy doesn't realize what a hornet's nest he's stirring up").

This is the pope who made it one of his first acts to confess, on behalf of the church, the sin of anti-Semitism through the centuries, the pope who visited prison inmates, saying to them, "You could not come to me, so I came to you."

A papal long shot

John the 23rd was the pope who broke the rules, went off script so often that people forgot to keep count, whose warmth and humour captured the world's affection and who died with the media tag of the most beloved pope in history.

Pope John XXIII, the 'caretaker' pope who set off the reforms known as Vatican II. (Osservatore Romano / Reuters)

Could the 114 cardinals casting their ballots in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel this week have caught what Tom Rosica caught? Who knows?

There was unmistakably a shy, simple, good-humoured and rather overwhelmed demeanour to Francis I as he looked out on the throngs in St. Peter's square and beyond.

Whatever his script might have been, he gave a simple, slightly rambling speech to the crowd about "journeying together" which he ended with, "Good night. Good rest."

Because an unknown cardinal supposedly broke his sacred oath of secrecy to God and leaked a diary to the media of what happened in the 2005 conclave, we know that Cardinal Bergoglio, a high-ranking Jesuit and the archbishop of Buenos Aires, came second in the voting to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI.

John Allen of the U.S. National Catholic Reporter, the church's journalistic fount of knowledge, pronounced Bergoglio's chances this time around to be tepid. One bookmaker gave him odds of 35-to-1, far down the list of papal possibles.

But how does he score on the church's big questions?

A slightly loose cannon?

On pastoral talents? Allen allowed that conservative cardinals liked him as a man who had held the line against progressive currents among Argentine Jesuits, in particular their inclination toward liberation theology; and that moderates approved of him as a symbol of the church's commitment to the poor and the developing world.

Someone seen as straddling the divide between conservatives and liberals gets good pastoral marks. The church doesn't need another pope who will aggravate the fault-lines among its 1.2 billion adherents.

An effective manager? He's had no experience working in the church's central government, the Curia, and from most media accounts, the cardinals in their pre-conclave discussions were more concerned about the dysfunctions and scandalous malfeasance of the Curia than anything else.

Argentine Catholics celebrate on the steps of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires. (Enrique Marcarian / Reuters)

Is he from outside the West? Absolutely. The first pope from South America, the most populous Catholic continent (though he is also from one of its most secularized countries).

Does he have baggage? Three days before the 2005 conclave, an Argentine human rights lawyer filed a complaint against him for complicity in the 1976 kidnapping of two liberal Jesuit priests under the country's military regime, a charge Bergoglio denied.

He also has been accused of ignoring the plight of other regime victims despite family members having related personal accounts of torture, kidnapping and murder to the priests he supervised.

But, in 2010, he told a biographer that he often sheltered people from the dictatorship on church property, and on one occasion gave his identity papers to a man who looked like him, to enable the recipient to flee Argentina.

As an intellectual, theologian and teacher? No question he gets high marks.

His age? At 76, he's older than the target zone of 70 that cardinals were said to be looking at. (He also has only one lung, the result of a teenage infection.)

Maybe the cardinal-electors saw in him a slightly loose cannon they didn't trust to be around a long time.

The message

And as a communicator?

He's preached the church's standard dogma on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, gay adoption, euthanasia, contraception and abortion, but delivered a steaming attack on priests who refuse to baptize children born out of wedlock.

He's said that extreme poverty and the "unjust economic structures that give rise to great inequalities" are violations of human rights; and during a public service strike in Argentina, he spoke of the difference between "poor people who are persecuted for demanding work, and rich people who are applauded for fleeing from justice."

And in a church whose leadership has been drenched in accusations of insensitivity, indifference and arrogance, he has spoken through the model of his own life.

He rode a bus to work as archbishop of Buenos Aires, wore a simple black cassock, lived with an infirm priest whom he looked after in a small apartment, rather than the archbishop's elegant residence, and cooked his own meals.

Maybe these outward and off-script signs of humility are what the cardinal electors saw, the John XXIII factor, and decided that might lead to good things for the journey ahead for the church.