Confronting poverty likely top focus for new pope, says Divinity School professor

Roman Catholics around the world learned yesterday (March 13) that they had a new pope. Among them was Teresa Berger, professor of liturgical studies at Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, who has a keen interest in Vatican affairs, both as an active member of that church and as a scholar.

Teresa Berger (Photo by Robert A. Lisak)

Originally from Germany, Berger is interested in the intersection of liturgical studies and theology with gender theory. Her most recent book is “Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical Tradition: Lifting a Veil on Liturgy’s Past” (2011). She is also a regular contributor to the blog Pray Tell. YaleNews asked her to comment on the implications of the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy.

Who is Jorge Bergoglio, and are there any hints about where he stands on some of the pivotal issues such as women priests, gay marriage, ecumenism, economic justice, climate change, and the rise of Catholicism in the southern hemisphere?

Jorge Bergoglio is an Argentinian (with Italian immigrant roots) who has spent most of his life in priestly ministry in his home country. He belongs to the Jesuit order; and most recently served as archbishop of Buenos Aires. He is not a man of the Vatican bureaucracy.

For Bergoglio, key issues revolve around poverty, the plight of the poor, and the unjust distribution of wealth and resources in the world. He will in all likelihood not champion women priests and gay marriage (he has spoken out against the latter in Argentina). On the other hand, the Jesuits did commit, some years ago, to align themselves in solidarity with women. Finally, both Bergoglio’s choice of a papal name and his simple lifestyle suggest that he is well aware of the ecological planetary emergency we live in.

Why do you think he chose the name “Francis”?

Assuming that Bergoglio chose the name Francis in memory of St. Francis of Assisi (rather than the Jesuit St. Francis Xavier), this is a deeply significant choice. To begin with, Bergoglio opted to start afresh with his papal name, rather than following in previously trodden paths. (He could, for example, have chosen to be Benedict XVII or John Paul III). Second, Bergoglio chose to take the name of a saint known and loved for his life of radical simplicity, his love of all of creation, and his mission and calling to repair and rebuild a church whose official leadership was failing. 

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio makes his first appearance as Pope Francis,
Is there any significance to the Vatican keeping leadership of the church in the hands of the older generation? At 76, he is unlikely to have a long tenure as pope.

To put this positively: The Vatican is not known for practicing ageism. And much of course will depend on what kind of 76 year old this pope will be. As to the papal office, at this point in time a young pope would have meant the possibility of another long pontificate like that of John Pope II. I am not sure that is desirable right now.

Any speculation about how this pope might deal with the sex abuse scandals?

I am sure there are many speculations, but doubt they are helpful. What is clear is that the Jesuits as an order (especially in North America but elsewhere as well, for example, in Germany) had to confront sex abuse in their midst. Moreover, in the cardinals’ pre-Conclave assessment of the state of the church, this topic was on the agenda, so the new pope knows he will have to attend to it.

How might Francis be different from Benedict as pope?

His appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s already gave some clues: He chose a simple self-presentation (the white papal vestment only); he spoke to the gathered faithful in very pastoral terms; and finally — and most movingly — he bowed and asked the people’s blessing before himself bestowing his first papal blessing. The gesture spoke loudly for Catholics.

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Gustav Spohn: gus.spohn@yale.edu, 203-432-3466