Still, our age does seem to be more cynical than most, and with good reason. As Mark Twain said, "Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to." When I was young, I admired presidents of the United States, religious leaders, explorers, teachers, great writers, military officers and my parents, among others.
My kids have come of age at a time when nearly every institution in American life has come to seem tainted (though I do hope their parents remain unscathed). One after another of our leaders and heroes has managed to shame himself in the past couple of decades. Americans have always been a little skeptical of politicians, but Bill Clinton (and too many others of both parties to name in recent years) has invited outright contempt and disgust. Baseball players and world champion bikers admit to doping after vigorous and protracted denials. Best-selling historians and journalists are caught plagiarizing. Teachers are having sex with their underage students. Doctors are caught taking lewd photographs of their patients. The Secret Service uses prostitutes. The most decorated and esteemed military officer of our time is forced to resign as CIA director after a sex scandal. One of the most admired college football coaches in the nation is found to have kept silent about child abuse. The Catholic Church itself has been profoundly tarnished for failing to protect children from pedophile priests.
So, for all of us, even the non-Catholics, it will be a tonic, and possibly even a little inspiring, if Pope Francis turns out to be just what he seems -- a truly Godly man who lives out his faith. He has always eschewed the trappings of office, forgoing the archbishop's palace in favor of a small apartment, cooking his own meals and riding public transportation to work rather than being chauffeured. When he was elevated to cardinal in 2001, he discouraged Argentines from flying to Rome to celebrate, urging that they give the money they would have spent on the trip to the poor instead.
"Father Jorge" was often found in the slums of Buenos Aires, and in 2001 showed up at a hospital and asked for a pitcher of water. He proceeded to wash and kiss the feet of 12 AIDS patients. He was harshly critical of Argentinian priests who had denied baptism to children born to unwed mothers, saying "These are today's hypocrites; those who clericalize the church, those who separate the people of God from salvation." Even after being chosen as Pope by the College of Cardinals, he rejected a car to take him back to his lodgings and took the bus instead. He showed a flash of humor when, later that evening, he toasted the cardinals, quipping, "May God forgive you."
Francis is humble but not simple. Reportedly a star student, he trained as a chemist (and taught chemistry for a time), and also mastered, in addition to his native Spanish, Italian, German and some English.
While secular liberals tend to frame questions about the church in terms of "moderate" or "conservative" views on abortion, homosexuality and contraception, the new Pope's humility and piety may breathe new life into matters that require moral leadership. Of course he will have to deal with the scandals and institutional problems of the church itself, but a man who has lived up to his own vows of chastity and poverty may be able to break through the ideological rigidity of listeners when he speaks, for example, of the rights of the unborn.
By taking the name Francis, the new Pope reminds the world that the mighty, globe-spanning church was founded on humble ideas and has been best represented by humble people, like St. Francis of Assisi. Not everyone can be a saint. But particularly at this historical moment, it would be so good just to witness a good man being what he claims to be.