REFLECTIONS ON THE ELECTION OF A NEW POPE
Bob LaRochelle is the pastor of 2nd Congregational Church (UCC) in Manchester, CT and is author of Part-Time Pastor, Full-Time Church (Pilgrim Press, 2010), Crossing the Street (Energion Publications, 2012) and So Much Older Then … (Energion Publications, 2013). He was an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church before becoming a United Church of Christ pastor. He is passionate about ecumenical dialogue.
The recent election of Francis I as the Roman Catholic Church’s new Pope has attracted great worldwide interest and justifiably so. First and most obvious is the fact that the election of a new Pope is a significant time of transition for Catholics. In light of many unfortunate occurrences, including well known scandals, within the Catholic community, this particular election carries with it a hope for a new beginning and some substantial changes.
Of course, depending upon where individual Catholics might rest on the theological spectrum, there are significant differences over precisely which specific changes should occur. There is diversity of thought within Catholicism regarding such policy changes as allowing priests to marry and ordaining women priests, just to name but two examples among many. One’s position on policy changes is connected to something far deeper. Policy flows from theology and theological differences have and continue to exist within the Catholic Church. They flare up in discussions on the topics mentioned above, as well as homosexuality, contraception, the relationship of church doctrine and public law, and many others.
Any Papal election is significant because the Pope is a world leader and has the potential to serve as a bridge builder between and among cultures, religious perspectives and nations. What is quite interesting is that etymologically the term Pontifex associated with the ministry of the Pope literally means ‘bridge builder’. In addition to the capacity a Pope has to influence world events, he can be a great source for the unification of all Christians, be they Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox. In my view John XXIII and his successor Paul VI were significant catalysts in the way Vatican II expressed the Church’s understanding of ecumenical relationships.
In my book Crossing the Street (Energion Publications, 2012), I contend that Catholics and Protestants, two Christian groupings that have had a checkered relational history, have much to gain in learning from and engaging in dialogue with one another. Despite some different interpretations, oftentimes flowing from different understandings of church authority, there is a true ecumenical center binding Roman Catholics and Protestants together. In his role as the most recognized Christian religious leader in the world, the Pope can do what others have done before him. He can be an influential leader in the necessary cause of Christian unity.
All of which brings us to the election of this man who will go by the title Pope Francis I. As I note in my book, Roman Catholicism is not monolithic. It is comprised of a pluralism and diversity of spiritualities, theological perspectives, starting points and devotional practices. With this in mind, it is thus important to look at the shape of this new Pope’s particular practice of Catholicism with an eye as to how that might influence his leadership. In this vein, I find the following facts about his life to be quite telling and illuminative:
- Pope Francis I is a Jesuit. As a member of the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius of Loyola, he is part of a religious community that takes the notion of religious community itself most seriously. The Jesuit tradition has made major contributions to the Catholic Church and the Christian world in these significant ways:
- The church’s intellectual tradition. No community of priests as a whole receives a broader and deeper education than those who belong to the Jesuit community. This integration of faith and reason has had a profound impact on the world. We Americans can readily identify many truly outstanding universities (Georgetown, Holy Cross, Boston College, to name but a few) that are run to this day by the Society of Jesus. On a personal note, I am so grateful that I have received degrees from two of these simply wonderful educational institutions.
- The church’s spiritual tradition. Pope Francis is grounded in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, one of the most profound prayer experiences constructed by a mere mortal! Those who enter the Jesuit priesthood have undergone a period of training in which a 230 day retreat centered on these exercises is a necessary component.
- Jesuit spirituality is intrinsically linked to its relationship to social justice. The Jesuit community has a global vision, rooted in the church’s stated preferential option for the poor. It is clear that Pope Francis’ compassion for the poor is a hallmark of his approach to pastoral leadership. Some would sound a cautionary note here, one that is worth watching as his Papacy unfolds: There is a chasm between those who embrace ‘liberation theology’ and others who express concerns about it. It appears that the new Pope has been among those in the latter category, especially in events that took place in Argentina over thirty years ago. It remains to be seen what this bodes for the future.
- He chose the name Francis, in deference and respect to Francis of Assisi. It seems clear from all indications that this Pope eschews a pompous lifestyle and favors simplicity and access to the people whom he pastors. There are those, including myself, who would contend that, regardless of specific policy changes or lack thereof, a Pope could make an incredible impact by changing the image of the Vatican. My early sense is that there is something of Pope John XXIII’s warmth and informality in Pope Francis, somewhat akin to that fictional Pope depicted in Morris West’s classic The Shoes of the Fisherman. The power of that witness could truly make for an incredible effect.
- Finally, there was a less than subtle theological/ecclesiological emphasis in the Pope’s opening remarks from the balcony of St. Peter’s. In referring to himself as Bishop of Rome, he issued a reminder that is often lost on many in the Christian world, including a good number of Catholics. Historically, the Petrine ministry, that which Catholics situate in the Pope, rested in the unique role Rome’s bishop played among those other bishops with whom he governed the church. It could be stated that Rome’s bishop is a ‘first among equals.’
I would contend that in referring himself in this way, we learn something about an approach to church governance that is most conversant with the historical growth of the Catholic Church and takes its first few centuries as highly informative, not limited its perspective to the medieval model that has wielded great influence in the church for so long. Where this Pope stands in relation to the kinds of questions that dominated Vatican I and other periods of debate over church authority cannot be easily gleaned from these remarks, but the remarks themselves might just scratch the surface of something the implications of which are most profound.
With all of this being said, I believe that this Papacy will be a significant period in the life of the universal church, a church that thrives as the gifts of varied traditions within it are cherished and become resources for our deepened relationship with God.
May all of God’s children thus turn to our God as we pray for Pope Francis’ health, well being and a deeply prophetic ministry to us and with us, in this, God’s most needy world!
AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM!