By Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Kathleen Sprows Cummings is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and the Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. The views expressed are her own.
Conventional wisdom was that a short papal conclave would result in the election of a front runner. So when I heard that there was white smoke after just five ballots, I prepared for a TV interview by reviewing notes about Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan. Not visible on camera was a thick packet on my lap containing profiles of other candidates, just in case. Luckily, I had it arranged in alphabetical order, and quickly laid my hands on the rather slender file of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
In Catholic circles, it is relatively rare to witness events without precedent. And yet we have seen so many of them in the space of a month. Close on the heels of Benedict's resignation came the election of an unexpected successor, who, it turns out, had a few more surprises in store for the faithful. In his first public moments as pope, Bergoglio engaged in a little self-deprecating humor, led the people in three of the most unifying prayers of the church, requested a blessing and humbly bowed before them. The most astonishing thing of all was his new name. Bergoglio became the first pontiff in history to adopt as his patron a beloved saint who may be best remembered for his love of animals and the simple life, but who was above all a reformer who called on a flawed institution to repair itself.
U.S. Catholics can be certain of this: Papa Francesco will make no abrupt reversals, least of all on issues over which they find themselves most disconnected from church teaching. But during a time when so many of them are clamoring for change, they are likely to be encouraged by any break with precedent at the highest levels of church leadership. In particular, the elevation of an Argentinian to the papacy represents a monumental shift in the church's center of gravity that should resonate with Catholics throughout the Western hemisphere. I happened to be with a group of third graders at a Catholic parochial school when the white smoke appeared. Many of them were captivated by the possibility of an "American" pope – by which they meant a person from the United States. As I expected, there are still no stars and stripes in the vicinity of the Sistine Chapel.
But Francis is nevertheless an American pope, and my young Catholic friends will grow up in a nation that increasingly understands itself as part of one America, in which economic realities and human migration render national borders less relevant.
Bergoglio's style may signify an even more meaningful departure from longstanding tradition. By now, everyone knows that the Archbishop of Buenos Aires eschewed many of the privileges that come with being a prince of the Church. And if the first day of his pontificate are any guide, he plans to continue doing so, at least to the extent it is possible. My Facebook feed yesterday was full of gleeful pictures and posts: Pope Francis rode the bus with the cardinals! He refused the papal limo on his trip to Santa Maria Maggiore! He paid his own hotel bill! At a time when clerical privilege is widely viewed as, at best, a vestige of a spirituality that no longer holds, and, at worst, justification for sheltering criminals, any sign of resistance to it at the Vatican will be most welcome.
Catholics in the United States have always grappled with the tension that comes from living in a culture that adapts readily and rapidly, and being faithful to a church that changes only slowly and with great caution. The chasm between Rome and America may seem especially wide at this historical juncture, and how effective Papa Francesco will be in bridging it remains to be seen. What is certain is that the tone of the first 24 hours of the new pope would have been markedly less optimistic had a Vatican insider stepped out on that balcony.