I WAS 15 when Pope Paul VI died in 1978. He’d been pope my whole life. Elated at the election of John Paul, I followed his papacy with all the obsessive focus of a teenager. When he died 33 days later, I simply didn’t know what to think. (His book Illustrissimi, a collection of letters written to saints, novelists, and artists, is one I return to for insight on Catholic imagination.)
During John Paul II’s 27 years as pope (the second longest reign in papal history), a dangerous nostalgia for a pre-Vatican II church was encouraged to flourish.
Under Pope Benedict XVI, that nostalgia came to fruition. The Latin Mass was re-established in many parishes. Amid a worldwide sex abuse scandal, liturgical correctness and “fancy dress” were too often elevated over children’s protection, victims’ needs, and institutional transparency. Women and girls were pushed further off the altar. To be gay, female, divorced, or a single mother—all these pushed one further from the table of the Lord, rather than drawing one nearer.
And now we have Pope Francis. When Jorge Mario Bergoglio announced he would take the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, I wept. To have the Poverello (the “poor one”) at the center of our Catholic faith is right and just—whether that poor one is a 13th century itinerant preacher or a child in the villas miseria around Buenos Aires.