Note: I have just received this text from my friend and colleague Rev. Harold Segura, who is in charge of my World Vision sector in Latin America. I think it might be interesting for you to hear a Latin American Evangelical (Baptist) voice on the subject of the election of the new pope.
* * *
Personal thoughts as not to remain silent, surprised before the news that the Pope is Argentinean.
San José, Costa Rica, March the 15th 2013
The Argentinean Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was appointed as the new Pope of the Catholic Church. He has chosen to exercise the pontificate of Rome under the name of Francis.
I followed the news via three different ways: the domestic TV station in Costa Rica, EWTN and the channel created by the Vatican for the live broadcast. In all three, the statement was the same: «Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; Habemus Papam: Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum Georgius Marius, Dominum Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem Bergoglio, Qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscus» [I announce thee a great joy: We have a Pope: The Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord Don Jorge Mario Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, Bergoglio. Who has taken the name Francis].
The Peruvian anchorman of EWTN (in Spanish) was naturally flabbergasted as a faithful Catholic man, who in spite of wishing it so dearly, never imagined that his Pope would be a Latin American man. Half joyful half bewildered, he managed to proclaim, with a heavy accent from Lima: “Bergoglio! An Argentinean is the new Pope, brothers; Cardinal Bergoglio is the new Pope”.
I had just finished my lunch, at the office in San José, in front of the TV screen and right next to my laptop. I was in the company of various coworkers and we all were equally silent when hearing the news. Firstly, we didn’t fully comprehend what was being said and secondly, because no one really would believe what we were hearing: the Pope is Argentinean. «It’s Bergoglio, the Argentinean! » I finally said and then fell silent; I then looked for my keyboard so I could twitter: “New Pope, for a new church? His name: cardinal Bergoglio, from Argentina”.
I was surprised by my reaction. I thought I was going to be more upbeat when I heard the name. I thought I was going to embrace my Catholic friends or that I was going to congratulate them when the news finally came out. But I didn’t. I just said what I said, I wrote what I wrote and I waited to see Bergoglio invested as Pope, as to make sure I could believe what I had heard. I was flabbergasted.
It’s been several hours and I still do not get out of my stunned silence. Very little can be said in this state of mind, we will need time to assimilate and interpret the news calmly. But for now, I’ll say I’m happy to hear the news; I’ll say this news fill me with hope and that I like to know he’s a person from our side of the Earth. I am pleased to know this hierarch has accompanied several of my good friends Argentinean Pastors to celebrations, in which they prayed for him and he has prayed for them. The well known Gospel musician Marcos Witt attended to one of these celebrations, at Luna Park in Buenos Aires (2006). I remember on that occasion Witt was forced to call a press conference, in order to clarify to his followers that he was not ecumenical. They said that just because he had been side by side with Bergoglio, he was looking to “drag the Christian church into satanic ecumenism”. (So hard to believe he would be accused of such a thing or that he would even feel he needed to defend himself!)
One more piece of information: in 2008, Cardinal Bergoglio was invited by the Lausanne Movement to serve as a speaker at a meeting of its leaders (most of them were evangelical pastors and theologians), held in Buenos Aires. He spoke on John 21:15-19. The president of the movement back then, Dr. Douglas Birdsall, says that at one point in the conversation the Cardinal said, “Fifty years ago, I would have thought of you as an adversary. Today, I welcome you all as my brothers.”
My personal experience with the new Pope is brief, but also adds to the reasons for my hope. I met him at the 5th General Summit of Latin American and Caribbean Episcopate, which took place, as it’s well known, in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. He had a leading role as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Primate of Argentina. For example, he was in charge of the homily at the Eucharistic Celebration on Wednesday, May 16. I listened intently. The word of the day was John 16:12-15, a missionary text in which Jesus invites his disciples to accomplish the mission under the guidance of the Spirit. He then said: “The Spirit is leading us, He also leads us down the path to all human periphery: the one of so many people not knowing God, of injustice, of pain, of loneliness, of a meaningless life; there are so many existential peripheries we must evangelize, but it is the Spirit who must lead us there.”
In Aparecida, he was the president of the Commission of the Writing of the Conclusive Document of the Summit and who presented the final version in the last days of the Summit. I am witness of the respect with which his fellow bishops treated him. He had gestures of supreme kindness towards the Evangelical observers (four of us in total), he greeted us and had brief conversations with us, in which he told us about some of the encounters he had had with the Evangelical Protestant Churches throughout the continent. He was always very warm towards us.
I know I’m taking the risk of seeming unctuous when I describe my sympathy for him and maybe even naïve for many. I am well aware of the risk and I’m only asking for a little patience, so I can explain the reasoning behind my optimism (or naivety).
I am no stranger to his conservatism (the fact that he participated in Evangelical celebrations means nothing more than that: he participated). He is, as all the other members of the College of Cardinals, a disciplined student of the conservative school of thought of the last two Popes. This school of thought defines his pastoral character, his theological position and his political options. I also am very aware of the allegations made regarding his unfortunate participation (by word, work or omission, as to use the liturgical language) during the last Argentinean military dictatorship (1976-1983). I have seen his pictures standing by the side of the tragic General Jorge Rafael Videla. I have not ignored these or any other news that present him as an ally of the military power, indifferent to the struggles put up by the theologians of the Latin American Liberation in the 70s and 80s and a staunch opponent of the current Argentinean government, lead by a woman, President Cristina Kirchner.
Professor Fortunato Mallimacci, former Dean of the School of Social Sciences in the University of Buenos Aires, stated a while ago that Cardinal Bergoglio is “condemned by history: it shows him to be an opponent of all the innovative experiences of the Church and, above all, during the time of the dictatorship, it puts him very close to the military power.”
I know these things. I also believe there is no reason to ignore the allegations made against Benedict XVI, for his membership of the Hitler Youth and his participation in the building of anti-tank protection systems during World War II. We must also acknowledge the controversy generated by the silence of the Vatican during the Holocaust, in the times of Pope Pius XII, as well as his alleged sympathy for the National-socialism.
I know all these things. But I want to believe that something new can be expected (is that a matter of faith?); not because of what Cardinal Bergoglio has been, has done or has not done, but for what Pope Francis may become and what he might do. I want to see doors, precisely where others are seeing walls, as I heard my good friend say, Dr. Valdir Steuernagel (Brazil).
This hope in me comes, partly, from the always fallible, but almost always reliable life experience. In fifty-five years, I have seen things done that I never thought would be accomplished, by the hand of those that I thought the least would do it. I have seen conservatives do what was expected from progressives (was that not the case of Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero?) and I have seen the liberals and progressives abandon causes when we expected the most from them.
Also, this stubborn hope comes from my frequent readings of Franz Hinkelammert, the old German master. That tireless visionary said, and said again these days, that today there are no “old patterns of left and right, conservative or liberal… I think the old confrontation [between] progressives and conservatives disappears.” And he then confesses: “I come from a conservative Catholic environment and have always defended this conservative position as a possible opening position.” I cling to this possibility of opening. It’s precisely because of it that I think new times may come for the Catholic Church with Francis, times for fraternal dialogue between it and the other expressions of faith, times for cooperative work to interpret the suffering in the world as a common ground for the mission, times for faith solidarity and a church that serves the world in the name of Jesus and his Kingdom. That is believing: to see the unseen and hope for it as if it already came to be (Hebrews 11:1).
Cardinal Bergoglio (the first Jesuit Pope) has chosen the name of Francis. And the following story belongs to the saint of Assisi: one day he entered the Church of Saint Damian, by then dilapidated and abandoned. He went in to pray and ask the Spirit’s direction. While he was there, in that trance, the image of Christ Crucified spoke to him: “Francis”, said the Christ, “go and repair my house which, as you see, is coming down to the ground.” And so, Francis rose to obey him and dedicated his life to that cause.
And what if history shall repeat itself?! That the voice would come and be heard by him: “Francis, che, go and repair my house which, as you see, it’s coming down to the ground”.
 Franz Hinkelammert (José Duque, Germán Gutiérrez, editors), Itinerario de la razón crítica: Homenae a Franz Hinkelammert en sus 70 años, DEI, Costa Rica, 2001, pp. 37-38.
Rev. Harold Segura is a Baptist pastor from Cali, Columbia, and Director for Christian Commitments for the Latin America and the Caribbean Region of World Vision International.