Karol Wojtyla lived under both the Nazis and the communists, and helped bring about the shattering of the communist empire.
Joseph Ratzinger grew up under the Nazis as well, and spent most of his life locked with his friend John Paul II in the worldwide battle with the Soviets and their branch operations in various intellectual garbs around the globe.
Now comes Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has also spent much of his life in the double conflict with fascists and communists. Christopher Hitchens told me in the last interview I did with him that the Argentine dictator Gen. Jorge Videla was the most evil of the many evil people the writer had met. The new pope has thus struggled against the worst of the worst, just like his immediate predecessors.
The battles of the 20th century have thrown up one last experienced leader for the opening chapters of the new century. Francis comes to lead a church that is more than a little exhausted and wounded from those epic battles, and from those wounds have come even more poisons. A weakened body is susceptible to such things. As any American who can read knows, the Roman Catholic Church in America and elsewhere around the world was invaded by very great evils which are still being expelled and expiated by new leaders like Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishops Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Jose Gomez of Los Angeles.
Since J.R.R. Tolkien was a Catholic, let me borrow a reference or two from "The Lord of the Rings" to illustrate the challenges facing Francis.
Evil never sleeps. As soon as it was thrown down in the fantasy epic it began to search for a new home, and came to occupy Mordor. I wouldn't presume to play Tolkien Jeopardy with modern media's Tom Bombadil, Stephen Colbert, but the arc of the Englishman's epic is always in front of us.
Good battles evil, and even when good wins -- as in 1945 and 1989 -- evil calls for reinforcements and opens a new front on which to renew the battle.
Lots and lots of people are blessedly living in their various Shires, tilting at global warming and various other pretend monsters, but the real horrors are out there, and the Roman Catholic Church has, for the third time in a row, called forth a leader who knows exactly the depths of human evil.
I spent most of last week interviewing leading intellectuals from the American branch of the Roman Catholic Church: George Weigel, and priests such as Robert Barron, Joseph Fessio, C. John McCloskey, and Robert Sirico. Each of them was surprised but also thrilled by the choice of Francis, confident of his internal compass. (Transcripts of all the interviews are available at the "Transcripts" page of HughHewitt.com.)
My last interview of the week was with Archbishop Chaput, who said of the new pope that Francis was "an extraordinary man" and an "extraordinary choice," and that no one should fear that liberation theology has entered St. Peter's from South America.
"[L]eft-wing liberation theologians from Argentina didn't like him as the bishop, and actually tried to stop him from being promoted to be the archbishop of Buenos Aires," Chaput told me. "So they must be especially nervous today."
But not defenders of religious freedom. As with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, they have in Francis a reliable, tough, experienced and courageous leader.
Examiner Columnist Hugh Hewitt is a law professor at Chapman University Law School and a nationally syndicated radio talk show host who blogs daily at HughHewitt.com.