by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
Every pope brings his own life’s experience to the papacy. John XXIII was an Italian hierarch who had a thirty-year experience as apostolic nuncio to Bulgaria, then as a Vatican diplomat to Turkey and finally nuncio in France. Those years away from Rome certainly influenced his attitude of congenial openness to the world as pope.
Paul VI was a typical Curial functionary. However, he caught the eye of Pope Pius XII and became a valued member of that pope’s inner circle before becoming archbishop of Milan for nine years. He had, therefore, administrative and pastoral experience.
Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope, came to the papacy with the searing experience of a churchman at every level in his Communist-dominated homeland. As pope he greatly emphasized Catholic/Christian freedom and work for the end of totalitarianism in all of Eastern Europe.
Benedict XVI came from a decidedly academic background. His papacy reflected both that sort of reserved personality and scholarly approaches to the questions of early 21st century.
It seems appropriate this week to reflect on the background of Pope Francis. In a few days he will again take center stage (as if he has ever left it) with his ambitious proclamation of a seven-year plan for the implementation of his historic encyclical Laudato Si’. The unique journey of this man as a Latin American religious leader during the second half of the 20th century and on into the 21st is a much-neglected key to what he is all about.
Consider then the chronology of his time and place aside that of the Latin American Church:
Jorge Mario Bergoglio – native of Argentina:
- Born in 1936
- Joined the Jesuits in 1958
- Ordained a priest in 1969
- Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in Argentina 1973-1979
- Years of exile 1979-1992
- Auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires 1992-1997
- Archbishop of Buenos Aires 1998-2013
- Cardinal 2001
- President of the Argentine Episcopal Conference 2005-20II
- Leading voice at the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America in 2007 (Cardinal Bergoglio was elected as chair of the writing committee for this conference. Aparecida is described as “a “coming of age” moment for the Church in Latin America and “a road map for the entire Church”.)
- Elected Pope 2013.
Parallel to this CV of Jorge Mario Bergoglio/Pope Francis is that of the Latin American Church. This is particularly useful by looking at these General Conferences of the Bishops of Latin America.
After the first of these, an unremarkable and, truth be told forgettable, first conference held in 1955, the world was electrified when the Second Conference took place thirteen years later in Medellin, Colombia. With the advantage of the historical insights of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Medellin called for a complete conversion of the Catholic Church – institutional and pastoral. The phrases “preferential option for the poor” and “institutionalized violence” shook the Latin American Church and indeed the world in their revolutionary content.
Since 1968 three more such general conferences have taken place: at Puebla, Mexico, in 1979; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 1992; and the above-mentioned Fifth Conference in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007. Each of these gatherings of hierarchy, theologians and pastoral/lay participants (note the collegiality here) reinforced and expanded the vision first articulated at Medellin in 1968.
It is uncanny that these two histories – Pope Francis’ and that of the Latin American Church – coincide so providentially. They reveal how the papacy of this pope is summed up in both of the insights mentioned. He continually calls for the entire Catholic Church to continue dedicating itself to the poor; and he has no fear of naming the institutional violences which continue to scar the whole of God’s creation.
We shall see this dual history in action next week when Pope Francis, now nearly 85 years of age, calls for seven intense years of living out and promoting his Laudato Si’ vision at every level of Church and planetary life.
“We are suffering the temptation to go backward in the Church today… Instead we should go forward…” (Pope Francis to Slovak Jesuits, September 12, 2021)
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.