Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Conclave

As I watched Pope Francis being presented to the faithful yesterday — and especially as I heard and read about him afterward — I was struck by certain similarities between him and former President Gerald Ford.

I suppose the most obvious similarity between the two is the fact that they probably would have been the last people anyone would have expected to see elevated to such heights. Certainly, Pope Francis, coming from the Western Hemisphere, was unexpected. Many people — myself included — felt it was likely the cardinals would choose a European. When it was announced that a decision had been made roughly 24 hours after the conclave began, I thought that was a sure sign that a European, perhaps an Italian, had been elected.

And, if you remember the Ford presidency, it was a surprise when he was picked by Richard Nixon to succeed Spiro Agnew as vice president. Even when Ford was installed as the No. 2 guy in the executive branch, most people probably didn't think he would become president. Personally, I figured Nixon would find some way to run out the clock on his second term, but the clock ran out on him instead, and Ford became president.

Primarily, my thoughts centered on the image of Francis as a man of the people who cooks his own meals and rides the bus to work. It reminded me of the days before Ford became president, when journalists were enamored by the fact that he habitually walked outside his home to retrieve the morning paper or that he would prepare his own late–night snacks (his favorite snack, D.C. reporters couldn't wait to report, was cottage cheese with ketchup on it).

Like Ford, Francis is — or at least wants to be — a regular guy.

According to Catherine Harmon of The Catholic World Report, "[Francis] rode the bus back from St. Peter's with the rest of the cardinals after having been elected pope."

The new pope apparently wants to retain the common touch — even if the folks with whom he rode the bus yesterday were not exactly common — but that is easier said than done.

Ford didn't retrieve his morning paper anymore after Nixon resigned — at least not while he was in the White House. I can't honestly say whether he continued to make his own midnight snacks or if he left it up to others — I'm pretty sure cottage cheese and ketchup was a new one on the White House cooks (anyone who was there at the time probably thought he'd seen it all).

I assume it will be hard for Pope Francis to remain the down–to–earth guy he apparently was before fate tapped him on the shoulder to be the leader of a church with 1.2 billion members worldwide. That was something of a problem for Ford, too, and he had been in the spotlight longer than Pope Francis.

He also had the misfortune of succeeding a president who was intensely secretive and paranoid, words that don't seem applicable to the man Francis is succeeding. Benedict XVI may not be everyone's favorite the way John Paul II seems to have been, but his personality was hardly like Nixon's. He did not resign in disgrace — quite the opposite.

When compared to Nixon, Ford came across as a breath of fresh air. The reaction of the faithful to the introduction of the new pope yesterday was nothing like the sense of absolute relief that swept across the United States when Nixon resigned.

That much was different.

But when Francis' first words to the faithful were an appeal for their prayers and support, it really reminded me a great deal of Ford when he said, in his first speech after taking the oath of office, that, rather than give an inaugural address to the nation, he just wanted to have "a little straight talk among friends."

"I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots," Ford said, "and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers."

When Ford left the White House just under 2½ years later, he had lost a fair amount of his initial good will when he pardoned Nixon. But he still managed to retain that image of the common man, a decent guy whom you liked even if you didn't agree with him.

Perhaps the same could be said of Pope Francis. Tonight, when I was having my weekly dinner with my father, I asked Dad what he thought of Francis. He said he liked the new pope's humility and the fact that he took the name of an humble saint. Dad liked that very much.

But he was not so enthusiastic about Francis' views. Dad taught religion and philosophy for many years, and he has always had a good sense of a religious leader's doctrine even if it wasn't readily apparent to others.

Perhaps he will be pleasantly surprised by Francis' words and deeds. Perhaps he will not be. That remains to be seen.

But I think it would be wise for Catholics not to place a burden of expectations that are too high on the new pope. Those who are expecting sweeping changes are probably expecting too much from a church that still announces the selection of its leader via smoke signals.

Change still comes slowly to the Catholic church.

It may have to be enough that he is the first pope from South America, the first Jesuit pope and the first pope to be called Francis.

But certainly it can't hurt for the bishop of Rome to be humble.

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