Today, the newly-elected Pope, Francis, leader of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholic Christians, begins his service as a spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. What does his tenure mean for faithful Catholics and the world at large?

What does his papacy mean for us here in Zambia? Clearly, it is early days yet to determine what image Pope Francis will carve out for himself as he leads one sixth of the world's population in its spiritual and pastoral journey here on earth. Beside, it is always difficult to predict what a new leader will do once installed into office. Some leaders live up to expectations and fit the bill while others spring a surprise or two and refuse to fit the bill.

However, three things strike me about Pope Francis, which, I believe would be good for the church in general and for us here in Zambia in particular. The three things are: his witness to a humble and austere lifestyle, his commitment to social justice and his inspiration from St Francis. I will leave the broader and more extensive discussion on what Francis will turn out to be for a more opportune time in the future. For now I wish to comment on the three elements identified above

The election of Pope Francis came as a surprise to many of us who had been watching events leading up to the outcome of the conclave, a meeting of 115 cardinals, who happen to be some of the high leaders of the Catholic Church. On the night in question, I was at dinner with a couple of friends, one a Jesuit and the other a colleague from the German Commission for Justice and Peace. I was in Geneva, Switzerland, attending the Human Rights Council sessions, during which Zambia's report to the Universal Periodic Review working group was to be considered for adoption.

Midway through dinner, word went out that white smoke was issuing from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel, signalling the election of a new pope. We all picked up our plates and rushed to the TV room to catch a glimpse of the new pope. We were all expecting to see one of the strong candidates that we had been hearing about in the media and one of the Jesuits in the community where we were having dinner actually had a list of possible candidates.

All of us in the room, (by this time we had been joined by a couple of Swiss Jesuits), were mildly shocked to hear that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, from Argentina had been elected. The senior Jesuits in the room with me immediately realised that we had a Jesuit as pope for the first time in the history of the church. And thereupon followed some quick reactions and assessments from those that had heard about him.

That he was leader of the Jesuits in Argentine during the military dictatorship in the 1970s and appeared not to be strong against the military rulers. That he was not very enthusiastic about liberation theology that was at the time sweeping across much of Latin America. This type of theology called for a radical engagement with the prevailing political economy of the time when many Latin American countries were ruled by right wing military dictatorships.

The socio-economic situation of the majority of citizens in that continent was scandalous to say the least. Many theologians and church leaders, including Jesuits, saw as their primary responsibility to preach a gospel targeted at bringing down the military dictators and promoting the eradication of poverty which inter alia, involved mobilising those marginalised and brutalised by abject poverty to actively work for its eradication.

Liberation theology was not universally accepted by the church at that time and during the reign of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Vatican doctrinal department came under intense scrutiny. Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope in 2005 and resigned last month on account of age.

Some of these opinions of the New Pope have been held for so long partly due to the failure over the years to get any concrete response from the then Cardinal Bergoglio on the accusations made against his lack of response to the Argentine dictatorship with its military junta and the opposition with its "guerillas" in the 1960s.

All the above notwithstanding, one thing that has shown through the character and personality of the new pope is his closeness to the poor and his witness to what is referred to as an option for the poor in the church. He abandoned a luxurious lifestyle associated with high-ranking church officials in Argentina and chose to live a simple, humble and poor lifestyle himself. He took public transportation to work and prepared meals for himself. He spent a lot of time visiting the slums (shanty compounds) of Buenos Aires.

Is this the kind of witness and leadership to be expected from Francis? Many in the developing world hope so. I would imagine that it is a kind of witness and commitment to the spread of the gospel that we need here in Zambia. How many of us church leaders lead a simple, austere and humble life? How many of us are close to the poor? How many of us spend time in Ng'ombe and Misisi here in Lusaka, Chipulukusu in Ndola and Ipusukilo in Kitwe compounds to mention a few? This is going to be a challenge to the church leadership in the years to come if Pope Francis lives up to his reputation and calls upon the rest of us to follow his example.

Another aspect that caught the imagination of the world upon learning about the new pope is his membership in a religious congregation called the Society of Jesus. It is rare for a Jesuit to be bishop, or a, cardinal and let alone a pope. Jesuits can only assume high church offices when called upon by the pope to do so.

Many Jesuits are easily associated with the work for higher education in universities across the world and in recent times for their strong commitment to the promotion of social justice. Several decades ago, during one of its big meetings in Rome, Jesuits committed themselves to working for social justice which they see as an integral part of the preaching of the gospel. Here in Zambia, the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, JCTR, a Jesuit institution attempts to put into practice this commitment of the 'service of faith of which the promotion of social justice is an integral part.'

The election of a Jesuit pope might strengthen this commitment by the church to assume '…the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the people of our time which are the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the followers of Christ' as expounded by the Second Vatican Council which took place in the mid 1960s. It will be interesting to see how the church moves on in this regard now that it is headed by an intellectual grassroots Jesuit pope who might just bring together the great Jesuits tradition of intellectual rigour and an ability to relate easily with some of the most disadvantaged and deprived members of our communities. So we should be hopeful that a pope who takes the interests of the poor at heart, who is a friend of the poor and who puts into practice the teaching of the church on social justice will help all of us to re-commit ourselves to the same mission.

Finally, just to say a word about his name: Francis. Many in the Catholic Church will be very familiar with who Francis of Assisi was. He as a nobleman - a very rich and powerful man - who chose to leave a privileged life to dedicate himself to serving the poor. Pope Francis has taken this name to signal his desire and intent to be close to the poor and to serve them in the manner of his Saviour Jesus Christ.

I think we should celebrate the election of Pope Francis here in Zambia and the world over and support him in directing the time, energy, heritage and resources of the Catholic Church towards lifting up the fortunes of those less fortunate than we are.




www.jctr.org.zm (external link)