Yesterday marked the beginning of Holy Week in the Western Church. I am well aware of the importance of each day in this week for Christians who follow the liturgical calendar. Many of you, like me, follow the liturgical calendar in both your private devotional life as well as your corporate church life. I personally share in Holy Week remembrances in my own Protestant community where I have come to deeply appreciate the ebb and flow of the liturgy. This special week is the greatest of all liturgical weeks for Christian believers who deeply treasure the greatest mysteries of our faith. Thus, with deep respect for the whole church, especially in a week that brings us together in profound unity as we remember our Lord’s sacrifice for our common salvation, I would like to complete the series that I began last week on the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as pope. We now know him as Pope Francis, the pontiff of the Catholic Church.
I want to remind you, if you are new to my vision of mission and church, that these reflections are written with a deep awareness that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. I do not agree with the office of the papacy but I believe we can agree that the pope will have a profound influence in the modern world, even among non-Catholics like myself.
So Who Is Pope Francis?
The BBC reported in weekend news editions, now eight days ago, that: “You only had to look at the shocked faces of many of the courtiers when they suddenly realized the significance of what had happened and understood that it really was over.” This account was referring to the shock inside the Curia at the choice of a man who may threaten the old regal ways of the European, and Christendom-shaped, Vatican. Over the course of the last ten days various Catholic media, ranging from the left to the right, have speculated about who this pope will really prove to be. It is way too early to know for certain but we already have some hints. I believe that some of these hints should prompt prayerful joy.
Another intriguing moment occurred when Pope Francis broke the seals of the Papal Apartment in the Apostolic Palace to take possession of his new home. Reports say that Vatican officials genuflected and bowed as Archbishop George Gaenswein, secretary of the now retired Pope Benedict but still master of the papal household, searched for the light switch while the Pope stood motionless for a moment, outlined in the dark, surveying the scene. His reported remark says it all: “There’s room for 300 people here. I don’t need all this space.”
We do not know yet who Pope Francis will choose as his number two for the position of Vatican secretary of state. The Italian cardinals and monsignori who have been running the Vatican under Pope Benedict would apparently like to retain their positions (all Vatican senior posts lapse when there is a vacancy of the Holy See) but the BBC suggests that many will be disappointed. Again, time will tell. I am guessing this will prove to be right based upon who the man Pope Francis has been and seems to be. He will very likely shape the office and not be shaped by the power and trappings of the office. He understands, or so it seems, Lord Acton’s most famous line, a line first spoken about Pope Pius IX in the nineteenth century: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” His first steps have been cautious but this is to be expected since a wise man will get to know the office before he makes major changes.
We know that Pope Francis told his fellow bishops in Argentina not to waste their money on traveling to Rome for his installation ceremony but to give the money instead to the poor. Again, the strong evidence is that Pope Francis intends to live out what his biographers tell us he has been his entire life. For this reason there are significant reasons to believe his leadership will bring change to the Vatican. (I will say more about his installation and provide some evangelical information about it in the next few days.)
The Path He Will Likely Pursue
Everything points in one direction–Pope Francis intends to make his senior appointments at his own pace and in his own time. Most keen observers who know the man believe that he will make significant changes within weeks as he alters the way the notoriously slow-moving Vatican bureaucracy has worked in the past.
One question already raised about the former Argentine cardinal is the state of his health. He lives with only one lung, since having the other removed as young man because of an infection. Nonetheless, he is said to be in excellent physical shape. He appears to be of sound mind and great strength even though he is 76 years of age. At 64 I cannot imagine the daily pressure of such a calling but I know that I have greater vision for the kingdom of God now than I have ever previously possessed. It seems that Pope Francis is up to the task and has both the strength and vision to finish his race by making a global contribution to the people of Christ.
When I read that the new pope was a football fan (soccer to Americans), supporting the Buenos Aires team San Lorenzo de Almagro, I knew then that I liked him even more. A man of the people who loves his favorite team and follows them as an avid fan. He even likes the color crimson. (Only readers who know me will get this humorous point.)
A New Call to Holiness?
Philip Pullella and Catherine Hornby, writing for the Reuters News Service, concluded:
Since his election on Wednesday as the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years, Francis has signaled a sharp change of style from his predecessor, Benedict, and has laid out a clear moral path for the 1.2-billion-member Church, which is beset by scandals, intrigue and strife.
He thanked the thousands of journalists who had covered his election but invited them to “always try to better understand the true nature of the Church, and even its journey in the world, with its virtues and with its sins.”
He urged journalists to seek “truth, goodness and beauty” in the world and in the Church.
Francis has set a forceful moral tone and gave clear signs that he will bring a new broom to the crisis-hit papacy, favoring humility and simplicity over pomp and grandeur.
A Catholic reporter notes:
The new pope’s outgoing nature and sense of humor differs notably from the much more formal Benedict, who last month became the first pope in 600 years to resign.