Pope Francis praying at the tomb of Pope St Pius V

The first thing this morning Pope Francis went secretly to pray at the basilica church of St Mary Major in Rome. It is a custom for a new pope to go to this great church to pray, but for Pope Francis it was the first thing on his agenda. While he was there he made it a point to pray at the tomb of Pope St Pius V. Is this significant? Does it matter? If it is significant what does it signify?

First of all, it is significant. Popes are aware of the historic nature of their office. They know that the papacy is one. All the popes exercise the same ministry and they all complement one another–even the wicked ones in their way fulfilled the divine providence. Furthermore, the Popes know their actions and words are significant. This is why they carefully choose their papal name. Benedict XVI chose his name for sound and significant reasons. Francis chose his name for sound and significant reasons. During his papacy, Benedict paid two very significant visits to the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V – the pope who decided that a pope could abdicate, and the only one who did abdicate for the good of the church. Benedict then follows his example and abdicates for the good of the church.

The very first thing Francis does is go to St Mary Major to pray at the tomb of Pius V.

So who was Pope St Pius V? He was a reforming pope who reigned from 1566- 1572. He cleaned up the curia, excommunicated heretical bishops, cleaned up the immorality in the church and swept the church clean– paving the way for the great surge in the church we call the Counter Reformation. He also excommunicated the tyrant Elizabeth I of England and formed the Holy League–a confederation of Catholic armies which eventually defeated the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto. Pius V also instituted the Feast of Our Lady of Victories (nor the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary).

St Francis lived during a time of corruption, wealth and power in the church. He heard Christ say to him, “re-build my church.” Will Pope Francis also hear the call from Christ to “re-build my church” and not only be a new Francis but a new Pius V? I think we will see some high drama in the months to come. Certainly if his reputation in his native Argentina is anything to go by, we may well see a Pope who is uncompromising in his proclamation of the fullness of the Catholic faith. He stood up against an aggressive secular authority when they tried to impose same sex marriage and abortion. He also stood up to his clergy and led by example with an austere life committed fully to the gospel. He also stood up against the clergy who wanted to get involved in politics. He has said ambition and power seeking are a sin.

Will Pope Francis be the “new broom” the Vatican needs right now? What will happen when he cleans up the Vatican, and then turns his broom to secular society? Like Pius V, does he perceive the Muslims as a threat to be dealt with rather than a friend to be reconciled? If he attacks the secular dogmas of free sex, abortion, homosexuality and feminism what will be the outcome? Will he be the person to lead us, like Pius V in a crusade against immorality and corruption both in the church and without? If he makes enemies will he last long? Does he have the strength to do this job? Is this precisely why the Cardinals elected him–to clean up the mess we are in once and for all?

This may be an even more exciting election than any of us predicted last night.

For the best assessment of Pope Francis and his election go here for George Weigel