Pope Francis was born in Argentina on Dec. 17, 1936. Since his parents were both born in Italy, he is considered a citizen of Italy by Italian law.
So the world may think a non-Italian, non-European pope was elected, the first since the eighth century. But the Italians simply believe that we’ve finally come back to our senses.
We’ve seen a lot of firsts about Pope Francis, but one not discussed is that he is the first pope since Pope St. Pius X — who died just as the Guns of August began to blaze at the start of World War I in 1914 — who was not personally touched by the vicious wartime politics of 20th-century Europe.
Pope Benedict XV reigned during the First World War.
Pope Pius XI would face the rise of Mussolini, Hitler and the gathering clouds of World War II.
Pope Pius XII served through the war and the horror of the Holocaust.
Pope John XXIII was a Vatican diplomat during the war. He saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees.
Pope Paul VI faced the wrath of Mussolini, who believed he was an anti-fascist priest working in the Vatican Secretariat of State. He was.
Pope John Paul I taught seminary in Italy during the war.
Pope John Paul II worked as a virtual slave laborer under the Nazi occupation of Poland while he studied for the priesthood in secret.
Pope Benedict XVI had been dragooned into the Hitler Youth and had deserted from the German infantry for home as the war neared its end.
Pope Francis was raised in Buenos Aires and was younger than 10 when the war in Europe concluded. His worldview has not been shaped by European war, nor European nationalism, nor by the European ideologies of the left or right that tore the continent apart.
I don’t know what difference that will make. But it does give him a different perspective.
I think he will also bring a fresh perspective to the New Evangelization. Pope Francis sees this in a very simple way. Noting the New Testament story of the shepherd who left his 99 sheep to search for the one who is lost, he says that “today we have one in the pen and 99 we need to go looking for.”
Pope Francis has seen the ravages of secularism, atheism and materialism on Catholic culture. He’s seen the half-empty churches, heard the stories of so many abandoning the Faith and believes this must stop.
In a recent Media Notebook from Catholic News Service, Kurt Jensen wrote about the death of film critic Roger Ebert after a long battle with cancer. Ebert was raised Catholic, and as he was dying he wrote about his religious upbringing and how his Catholicism had created in him a specifically Catholic outlook that he never lost.
“I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel,” he wrote, “with this technical loophole: I can’t believe in God.”
Ebert described the nuns who taught him and his pride as serving as an altar boy. “I believe I could serve Mass to this day,” he wrote. He spoke of his mother, who “believed in the faith until the hour of her death. In her final days, she lapsed into a comatose state. (Yet), under her breath, barely audible, she repeated the ‘Hail Mary’ over and over again.”
But somehow, Ebert never came back. I will always wonder if a conversation was missed, an opportunity lost, where someone could have taken that faith that was almost there and brought him back home.
That’s the New Evangelization. And Pope Francis will be expecting us to take up that challenge.
The old Chinese curse is: “May you live in interesting times.” I think we are headed toward interesting times with Pope Francis. And I don’t think that’s a curse.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.