One of the most extraordinary events of 2013 was the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as pope — the first Jesuit, the first pope from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, the first non-European in nearly 1,300 years and the first to take the name of Saint Francis.
And yet, for many Roman Catholics, those are not the things that distinguish Francis from the long gray line of pontiffs who preceded him.
It is one thing, for instance, to hear a pope urge charity for the poor, but quite another to hear him challenge the entrenched elites who abide chronic poverty in the midst of great wealth. We have heard a pope say the poor are blessed, but we have not heard one correctly call them victims of a corrupt financial system.
In Francis, elected in March to replace a forgettable pope who chose to retire, the Roman Catholic Church has a savvy new leader who, with deeds and words, puts mission before doctrine and speaks truth to power. And his words about economic imbalance should resonate well beyond Catholics.
In November, Francis sent an emissary to Baltimore to tell the annual conference of Catholic bishops to spend more time tending to pastoral duties — "shepherds living with the smell of the sheep" — and less time being cultural warriors.
It is a remarkable turnaround — a pope demanding that his church be relevant, addressing directly subjects of contemporary urgency, and eschewing the monarchical papacy for the role of street fighter who challenges the ruling class.
"I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets," Francis wrote in his recent apostolic exhortation, a remarkable document whose benign title ("The Joy of the Gospel") cloaks an appropriately harsh indictment of a global system that fosters breathtaking disparity when it isn't being reckless and causing economic collapse.
In the document, the pope referred to the "tyranny" of unfettered capitalism and the "idolatry of money."
He called on the rich to share more of their wealth, and for political and financial leaders to balance their ambitions with the needs of people who lack jobs, education and health care. That sounds like populism, something any pontiff could have said at any time, and Francis already has been dismissed as a leftist ideologue who fails to see the wonders of capitalism.
And yet, the pope seemed to anticipate that criticism in his exhortation, noting how, for instance, trickle-down economics has excluded so many.
"Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world," the pontiff said. "This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power . . . . Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting."
That is more than economic populism; that is the view of a great many people — many of them Catholics, observant and fallen-off, in predominantly Catholic countries with high unemployment rates. In fact, Francis' message could not have been better-timed, coming in the prolonged aftermath of a recession marked by financial malfeasance, widespread inequality and a general decline in public trust of the free market and political systems.
In the U.S., various surveys, including those by the Census Bureau, show that the richest 5 percent of Americans — households with at least $191,000 in annual income — continue to enjoy a historically large share of wealth, even larger than before the Wall Street meltdown and recession.
Meanwhile, income growth for the rest of the nation has remained stagnant, a trend that started in the 1980s and continued as the nation saw an astounding concentration of wealth at the top. While corporate profits soared, the Census Bureau showed 46.5 million Americans remained in poverty in 2012, virtually unchanged from the year before.
The Occupy Wall Street movement might have folded its tent, but calls for economic justice continued and grew louder in 2013, with fast-food workers and others demanding increases in the minimum wage and Democrats in Congress trying to fight off cuts in food stamps and unemployment benefits, incessant calls for repeal of the Affordable Care Act and demands for even more austerity.
In the midst of this, the new pope's message has particular relevance for Americans. And that is no small thing.
"At times the Catholic hierarchy has seemed to be the opposite of what it should be: mean, materialistic and blind to needs of the poor, women, lesbians, gays and others marginalized instead of caring for all, magnanimous and concerned for those in need," says Ralph Moore, longtime advocate for the poor of Baltimore and a Catholic.