Gregory R. Erlandson, who leads one of the largest Catholic publishing organizations in the United States, tells Newsmax the selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was “brilliant” but surprising and will likely usher in a period of “renewal” for the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
“This is really a brilliant choice, but a surprising choice,” observed Erlandson, president and publisher of the Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division in an exclusive interview from Rome.
Erlandson, a Newsmax contributor, stood toe-to-toe with as many as 100,000 ebullient Church faithful who poured into St. Peter’s Square on a rainy Wednesday to witness the billowing plumes of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel that signaled the selection of the 266th leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Even though his personality came across as being very warm and very humble, the names that kept getting discussed were other names,” said Erlandson, who joked that his feet hurt from standing on the cobblestones in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, and that he hadn’t eaten in 12 hours but couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. “He wasn’t really on anyone’s list because he was viewed as older.”
While Bergoglio was thought to have finished second in the last papal conclave behind Pope Benedict, “he’s 76 years old and everyone thought the cardinals were looking for someone younger, someone in their 60s,” said Erlandson.
It was his advanced age and declining health that Pope Emeritus Benedict cited as the reason behind his unprecedented decision in February to step down from the position he ascended to eight years prior, following the death of Pope John Paul II in a tradition-steeped process that played out again this week.
Erlandson said most of the people in St. Peter’s Square seemed caught off guard by Wednesday’s announcement.
“The Latin Americans knew him but Italians and Americans didn’t know really who he was, so his name caught everyone by surprise who wasn’t aware of some of the history,” Erlandson explained. “Of course, people were cheering for him and all that, but they’re going to have to get to know him, which is going to be one of the exciting things coming up.”
Erlandson said the cardinals most likely wanted to choose a non-European to serve in the Church’s top post for the first time in history.
“I think that is really significant because it shows that the locus of the Church has shifted and that the cardinals are recognizing that,” he said, noting the heavy concentration of Catholics throughout Latin America.
In addition to being the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere, Pope Francis is also the first Jesuit and the first to take the name Francis, which is likely a reference to St. Francis of Assisi, who was best known for his simple lifestyle and work with the poor.
Another possibility is that the name was derived from Francis Xavier, a Jesuit saint best known for his evangelism, particularly in India, though that is not as likely, according to Erlandson, who also dismissed the notion that cardinals wanted to clean house with their selection.
“While it is true that there is frustration with the Curia,” he said, “I think what’s important to take away from this is that these are the cardinals talking about renewal of the church, which is fundamentally different from this kind of political analysis that’s been in all of the media.”
He believes the cardinals wanted to make a “spiritual statement” that will have implications on the Vatican Curia as well as other parts of the institution.
“If you notice how he came out and notice how he spoke — the humility that he spoke with — and then having everyone sort of bow their heads in prayer,” recalled Erlandson. “This is very different from the way that Joseph Ratzinger did it and I think that’s the statement that’s being made here.”
Erlandson, who is president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, and author of the 2010 book “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal,” acknowledged that Pope Francis is considered to be a conservative, “but the role of Pope is inherently conservative,” he said.
Known for his humble manner and modest lifestyle — Cardinal Bergoglio takes the bus to work in Buenos Aries and lives in a simple apartment — Erlandson said it is likely to expect that he will place a greater emphasis on helping the poor.
“Ultimately what it’s about is an encounter with Christ and then following in Christ’s footsteps,” he said. “We have to recover or renew or refresh who we are spiritually.”
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