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The significance of Pope Francis


Only through collegial governance and a decentralised papacy can the bishop of Rome rebuild a participative, witnessing Church and stymie a clericalised one

The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, as the 266th successor to the See of St. Peter in Rome is significant for a variety of reasons: the first pope from outside Europe in over a thousand years; the first Jesuit ever in the Order’s near 500 year history; a deeply spiritual man dedicated to a pastoral leadership of service. As Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires he stayed not in the bishop’s palace but in an apartment. He preferred using public transport to a chauffeured limousine, cooking his own meals. Though not overly political, he doesn’t shy away from the impact of the political and social of the Gospel message; known as a conservative but also as a man of communion and dialogue; has worked on the Synod of Bishops but is not an insider to the Vatican. As a Jesuit, he has held key offices, including that of novice master and provincial superior. And Jesuit spirituality is written into his religious DNA.

Diverse expectations

Such a complex and rich background leaves Catholics with equally multiple and diverse expectations. One can’t anticipate how his papacy will unfold as his past experience impacts his present responsibilities, as he makes a new future for the Church. Certainly, a Latin American pope will influence the Church there, as European popes before.

However, there seem to be clues already in his first few days of office. In his first speech to the city of Rome and to the world, “ urbi et orbi”, he begins with a disarmingly informal “good evening,” and ends with a friendly “goodnight, sleep well”! He refers to himself as the “bishop of Rome” and invites them to begin together “this journey, the Bishop and people, this journey of the Church of Rome, which presides in charity over all the Churches, a journey of brotherhood in love, of mutual trust. Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world that there might be a great sense of brotherhood.” Before he gives his blessing, he asks the people “for a favour first” to pray for “their bishop … in silence”. And finally he assures them that he will “pray to the Madonna to protect Rome.”

Surely this does not presage an imperial papacy exercising dominance. He is not a hierarch nor a superstar, not a recluse either, but a brother pilgrim! He did not refer to himself as ‘Pope’. The Cardinal deacon had announced: “ habemus Papam”, we have a Pope, but what we see is only Francis, a pastor beginning a journey with his people, presenting himself as the bishop of Rome in collegiality with his brother bishops.

However, there is no turning back from the core agenda of the Council: the Church as the pilgrim people of God enlivened by the Word of God, rather than a pyramidal institution hierarchical controlled; the need for a graded devolution of authority to regional synods and local churches; to celebrate an inculturated sacred liturgy rather than an antique passive rite, to open to the modern world in the service of faith and the promotion of justice; in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue; with respect for the human dignity and religious liberty of all, a community of persons, not a bureaucracy of institutionalised roles.

This seems an impossible agenda, one which neither the pope nor the bishops can effectively tackle alone or separately. The Council urged the primacy of the bishop of Rome as a service of solidarity and a guarantor of unity in the Church. Control can enforce uniformity, it cannot inspire unity. The pope with the bishops in collegiality together authenticate a communion of the churches. The colossal scandals and even more the damaging failure to address these adequately are stark testimony of the limitations of the present bureaucratic structures, and the need for change, reform, renovation. The modern world is far too complex and the Church today far too large to be effectively centralised. Only collegial governance around an authentic centre, the pope with the bishops, not an either/or dichotomy between them, can effectively rebuild a participative, witnessing Church, and stymie a clericalised one. Will Francis be the man to mediate all this?

When living outside the town in a little dilapidated chapel, the saint of Assisi heard a voice: “Francis, Francis, build my Church.” And untutored as he was in the new life he was called to, he began literally to rebuild the chapel with his bare hands. And thus began the Franciscan renewal of the medieval Church. Today the Catholic Church needs a Francis to rebuild it again. Jorge Mario Bergoglio must surely have remembered that charming story when he accepted the papacy and chose the name Francis.

Awesome task

Certainly it will not be an easy or straightforward reconstruction, and we can easily become critical and cynical along the way. It’s immensely difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible to walk in the shoes of the fisherman. So before we rush to judgment we would do well to remember the old proverb about withholding our judgment till we walk in the other’s shoes. But we can only imagine Pope Francis’s awesome task.

Good Pope John XXIII who was elected at 78 surprised the world and shocked the Roman Curia, the centralised bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, calling a Council in the 4th year of his papacy for an aggiornamento, i.e., to update the Catholic Church. The rest is history, but it is still contested, though a very hopeful one. Pope Francis must now take this forward into a renewed future, as he with the bishops rebuilds the Church together with all people of goodwill. This I believe is the significance of the election of the first non-European pope in a millennium.

The significance of the first Jesuit pope is still to unravel. The issue is whether the election of a Jesuit pope really indicates a greater acceptance of the Order today, or whether it merely expresses the confidence in one man who happens to be a Jesuit.

The election of the first Jesuit pope comes just a year before the bi-centenary of the restoration of the Society of Jesus by Pius VII in 1814, after its suppression by Clement XIV in 1773; and 32 years after John Paul II had suspended the normal administration of the society and imposed his delegate on the order, 1981-1983. Jesuits are known to be always on the frontiers of the Church. Little wonder then that controversy seems so much a part of their history.

Whether it was before the pre-repression Society of Jesus: the Chinese rites or the Malabar rites, or the Paraguay Reductions for the indigenous Amerindias in Latin America; or after its restoration: new liturgical movements, dialogue across Christian denominations and religious traditions, cutting edge theology or political involvement and social movements … contestation and struggle stamp Jesuit history both within the Church and without, this in spite of the Jesuits’ vow of especial obedience to the pope in regard to mission.

For this vow is understood as a commitment to the priority for international mission under obedience to the most universal authority in the Church. Hence Jesuits were perceived by nationalist leaders as not giving their loyalty to their nation state. Finally, they demanded their suppression forcing Clement XIV’s hand.

However, the way mission is perceived at the frontiers and from that at the centre is inevitably different. Yet, in a globalised world the necessity of an international mission across national borders makes this special vow all the more relevant in our world today. In accordance with tradition, the Superior General of the Jesuits will meet the new Jesuit pope and renew this vow on behalf of the whole Order. Jesuits must wait to see where their obedience to this pope will take them.

Our new pope is sure to surprise us with joy and shock us with the unexpected. Let us pray with Pope Francis the prayer for peace of St Francis: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace …”

(Rudolf C. Heredia is an independent researcher and a Jesuit.

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Printable version | Mar 16, 2018 4:03:24 PM |