by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
July 10, 2022 – Without being fatalistic about it, we must accept the fact that the pontificate of Pope Francis is winding down. None of us wants to face it and all of us pray for the Pope’s health and continued vigor. But he is a full 86 years of age and, although still not showing signs of mental or emotional decline, speaks more often of his elderliness (always in a positive manner).
It seems, then, helpful to begin summing up what Pope Bergoglio has meant to the world and to the Church and, perhaps more importantly, what will be his legacy. Some admittedly debatable thoughts on the matter:
What Francis will leave can be looked at under the general rubric of his spirituality and how that has impacted his theology and praxis. These dimensions of our relationship with God and with the world are intertwined. As theologian Gustavo Gutierrez has said: “Theological categories are not enough; we need a vital attitude, all embracing and synthesizing, informing the totality as well as every detail of our lives; we need a spirituality.” (A Theology of Liberation, page 203).
Understood this way, true spirituality has little to do with “personal practices of piety.” It goes far beyond these considerations and has everything to do with our life in God at this moment in human history.
Clearly the spirituality of Pope Francis has been forged by his roots in the Latin American Church with its concentration on human experience as the key to knowing God’s will. In the post-Vatican II era (which almost exactly parallel the years of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s adult life), that Church has used its collective experience to give the world a theology and sociology based on insights like the Gospel call for “a preferential option for the poor” and prophetic denunciation of “institutionalized sin.” This process has turned theology upside down. It starts with lived experiences and then asks, “What does God’s word have to say about this?” It does not judge each circumstance from a set of abstract precepts.
We can see this influence on Pope Francis in practically every decision he makes, every concern he expresses, in his every personal gesture. He starts with what is happening and takes his theological conclusions from there.
- He remembers the graveyard at Normandy Beach where 30,000 young men are buried and observes similar carnage in Ukrane and calls for a rethinking of the traditional and questionable just war theory.
- He observes that the revival of the Tridentine Mass undercuts the purposes of the Vatican II rite, that it has worked against gathering all people around the table of the Lord. So he moves to disallow it.
- He knows the sad situation of Catholics who do not receive the Eucharist because of a canonically invalid second marriage and has instructed the Pontifical Academy for Life to promote an approach where conscience and discernment go hand-in-hand with moral norms.
What is uppermost in our minds during this autumn season in the papacy of Francis is what will come next? Could there be successor capable of picking up Francis’s mantle and continuing this pastoral Petrine ministry? Rather will the next pope(s) return the Roman Church to a doctrinaire ecclesiology, which has all the answers before knowing the questions?
Pope Francis is doing what he can to ensure that that does not happen. With everything he is offering these days, the most important has to be his Synodal Synod process. This has the distinct possibility of assuring that the Church will never be tha same again – that the People of God have seen a Promised Land of ever increasing participation is the life of this institution and a Sensus Fidelium will not receive anything less.
It is really up to all of us to make our own the spirituality of this genuine and providential pastor and make sure that this happens.
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.