I am trying to be excited and hopeful about the election of the new pope. I am not quite certain that I am succeeding.
I am also trying very diligently to think that this does not have the feel of the election of Pope Celestine V, the exceptionally holy hermit (he lived a life of extreme poverty and humility) who was helpfully encouraged to resign the papacy in the late thirteenth century by Benedict Gaetani (who would become Pope Boniface VIII). Celestine was manipulated from beginning to end by forces who clearly had other fish to fry. I hope this one turns out a bit better.
Thus, as Francis begins his papacy, I am mindful of the job that needs to be done, and very clearly wondering whether he has the necessary skill to do all of the heavy lifting. I would feel better if the church had actually elected a Fransican, but this particular Jesuit may be willing to do more than simply say the right words at the beginning of his pontificate. Of course, all of them say the right thing at the beginning of their pontificates, but what happens next is not always consistent with those first chords of humility and vows to do right by the 'least of these'.
I am especially suspicious of any cardinal in this day and age - all of them are either JP II's men or Benedict's men, which does not fill me with a great sense of hope. There are huge tasks ahead, and a collection of small 'c' conservatives (protectors of the new status quo) are unlikely to do the necessary work of reformation. What are the huge tasks? The Curia needs to be brought to heel. The clergy abuse scandal must be acknowledged, and those guilty of both the abuse and the cover-up must be dealt with publically - the church must then enter into a broad and effective period of atonement. The hierarchy needs to stop oppressing and surpressing the nuns. Finally, the church needs to embrace what it started at Vatican II, and stop the process of rolling back the reforms. If they want to encourage the Tridentine Mass, fine, but there is a fine line between encouraging the use of a particular liturgy, and attempting to control the people via the liturgy. Consistency can be a good thing, or it can be used as a way to squelch independent thought and expression.
Can Francis be a reformer? I don't know. I don't think anybody does. I hear a lot of wishful thinking - most notably in those who reference John XXIII as the last 'caretaker' pope. Actually, the last caretaker was Benedict XVI, and I don't think that Benedict reformed anything of value beyond hopefully getting the church to rethink papal retirements. I guess turning back the clock is a kind of reform, although as Gregory VII might suggest, perhaps it would be best to use the word 'restoration' or 'renovation' instead - likely more accurate terms for what we are attempting to describe. Nonetheless, Francis begins his papacy with far more questions than answers, and a church that is need of a bold leader. He doesn't really have time to ease into the position, he needs to hit the ground running, and show that he will be willing to address the issues that are crippling the church.
A brief digression - notice that I haven't mentioned the issues of the marriage of the clergy, the ordination of women, or contraception? Right, that is on purpose. I don't want us to get distracted from the first order issues. These are exceptionally important, but I know that they simply are not going to be addressed with anything approaching serious debate. It won't happen. The College of Cardinals won't go there. The new pope will not go there. So, it makes little sense to put them on the wish list of issues for the new pope to tackle. He won't. Thus, it is time to focus on the areas that might actually see the light of day.
If the church wants to be taken seriously, they need to attend to serious internal reforms. You cannot speak of word of gospel to the world if the world finds the speaker ridiculous and horrifyingly hypocritical. The church needs to get its own house in order before it can begin to tend to the world. We need the pope to be serious about reform.
My hope is that Francis acts like an Interim Minister in the a mainline protestant church - the person brought in to make sure that the church continues to function until a new pastor is called. The Interim is brought in to shepherd the church through the transition - encouraging the church to face its own issues, and solve them, so that when the new pastor arrives, they can all move forward together. The Interim acts as a counselor/therapist/noodge, telling the congregation the truth, and effecting the necessary changes to make the congregation a healthier place. People don't always like what the Interim does, but the Interim does what is necessary for the long term health and faithfulness of the congregation. If Francis acts in this manner, then I will gladly applaud his pontificate.
My concern is that Francis is simply too much a creature of the last two popes, and thus any kind of truth-telling and problem-solving type of papacy seems highly unlikely. This makes him vastly different than John XXIII, who came out of a conclave of widely divergent ideas and worldviews. Francis' fellow travelers are a fairly monolithic bunch. The possibility that he will grow an independent streak seems quite iffy.
But still I hope. No matter how much I learn as I study the history of the institutional church, my hope is not diminished. Because no matter how much the church may cause one to despair, there are moments when the institution drags itself to do the right thing. It does this when it actually remembers what Jesus of Nazareth told us to do - its not hard, not particularly complicated, and the new pope's namesake knew it well - preach the Good News, administer the sacraments, care for others, forgive, love.
Francis, start there, but then make sure that you bring the rest of the hierarchy with you - because many of them have seemed to have forgotten.