Pope Francis is a humble man attuned to a simple life. He is concerned for the poor and is willing to touch them, sit with them and wash their feet. He prefers public transportation and is an ‘outsider’ in church politics. While the rest of the world is amazed at the man chosen to lead the Roman Catholic Church, I think it’s about time we had someone that acted like Jesus.
Benedict XVI is a great thinker. His scholarship and writing over the decades have provided much grist for theologians and he has contributed significantly to the tradition. He also lived a simple life before rising to pope, living in a small apartment with his cat and books. Being a great thinker does not always mean a person is also a great communicator or an active leader in the forefront of life. Benedict is a quiet man whose enjoyment and need for solitude gives him the strength to do the kind of theological mental Olympics that he does so well. I am happy for him that he recognized that his gifts were better suited to a different way of serving the people of God.
John Paul II was a great man. His charisma and strength of will emboldened him to take risks, to go to places where previous popes had not dared. He strode through life in faith that was powerful and consuming. Rosy cheeks on a handsome face added to his charm as he spoke on apologies, forgiveness and grace. It’s worthwhile to remember that his leadership was just as theologically conservative as Benedict’s and it’s only his ability to communicate better that made a difference in the transmission of doctrinal ideas. I think his lasting legacy will be the image of him sitting with his would-be assassin in prison in prayer.
I bring up the example of the two previous popes to illustrate that each man bears a different gift to the church and it’s often not until years later that we come to understand what he was able to do. We assume that his background will continue to be a source of inspiration for Pope Francis to withstand the opulence and majesty of the Vatican world. It seems that we hope he will come to represent the Christ on Earth rather than the Christ, King of Heaven. Perhaps it is time for a lower Christological focus, one that looks at people and not at the nouns or adjectives used at the altar.
However, let us not forget that none of the men considered as being called forth by the Holy Spirit for the papacy is a radical thinker. Radicals do not participate in the system, that’s what makes them radical in part. In his own history, Pope Francis managed to live through the tragedy of dictatorship and the human rights abuses during the Dirty War as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has been criticized for failing to be more formidable in his efforts to have priests released from torturous captivity. Recent reports claim that he was busy behind the scenes.
It’s not that I want to find fault with Pope Francis as he gets out of the gate but I think we have to be patient and cautious with our assumptions about his papacy. There will not be changes in major doctrines of life, sexuality, ordination or teaching authority of the church in the life of Catholics. His Jesuit spirituality will not lead him to buck authority, that’s just romantic notions from “The Mission” movie. We keep forgetting that next to DeNiro’s armed activism was Iron’s quiet obedience. Instead, we will see a great spiritual discipline in Pope Francis’ life of prayer and a consistent commitment to the perseverance of community and neighbor in the life of the church.
It is also important to remember that what the Holy Spirit calls forth from Father Jorge as Pope Francis may be different than was called forth from Archbishop Bergoglio. It will be equally important for us to understand that Pope Francis wants to build, not destroy. He will use the current infrastructure and hierarchy and over time we may notice changes but not destruction and replacement. The Catholic Church does not really do revolution and reforms happen within the context of tradition.
I am intrigued by the possibilities for Pope Francis and I pray that he is able to stay whatever course God has planned for him and the church. I am looking forward to his sense of humor, his conversational style and his simplicity of life. I hope that he ushers in an age of repentance from those who have abused their authority and a resurgence of missionary zeal that involves digging wells instead of preaching about condoms.
I am also realistic. A pope is a pope and the Vatican is what it is. I hope and pray that Pope Francis does what the Spirit moves him to do and that I have the wisdom to accept that movement.