by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
On a rainy evening, March 13, 2013, the senior cardinal of the Roman Curia, Jean-Louis Tauran, appeared on a balcony in Vatican City. He spoke to the immense crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square and to the world: “Anuncio vobis Gaudium magnum – Habemos Papam. Georgium Marius Bergoglio.”
A stunning moment, the kind where people remember exactly where they were on hearing the news. The media was ready with details about the new pontiff: Argentine – first from a continent outside of Europe, first Jesuit pope.
Could anyone have imagined what this Latin American would mean for the institutional Catholic Church and far beyond it? Perhaps a great deal: Choosing the name Francis, explicitly taking as his inspiration the saint of Assisi (a total break with pope’s names); asking for the people’s blessing before imparting the papal benediction; deciding immediately not to live in the papal palace but in community at Casa Santa Marta; paying for his stay there during the conclave; refusing to put on one of the ornate papal vestments, reportedly saying “the carnival is over.”
As a non-believing friend of mine commented in those days, “Francia has electrified the world.” For Catholics, this was an unbelievable new moment for the style of the “Holy Father,” “Successor of St. Peter,” “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.”
In addition, as details of Bergoglio’s life emerged, we knew he was unique: failure as a too-young provincial superior of the Argentine Jesuits; alienation from his order; an inevitable “rehabilitation” through episcopal ordination; and a totally revolutionary ministerial style as Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires. He made the “villas miserias” surrounding that city his principal preoccupation, assigning his auxiliary bishops to more affluent areas of the archdiocese.
The “new papacy” and its significance have never declined but have become almost commonplace. Pope Francis has lived up to his choice of that name in so many ways. His papal visits almost without exception, have centered on poorer countries. (He has never returned to his relatively prosperous native Argentina.) He speaks and acts with coherence, demonstrating in every word and gesture his “preferential option for the poor.” He continues to call Catholics and all of humanity to that same option.
Finally, and above all, Pope Francis has practiced something he discovered long ago in Latin America: the “teologia del pueblo” (the theology of the people). Long before he became pope, he said, “When you want to know what the Church teaches you go to the Magisterium … but when you want to know how the Church teaches, you go to the faithful people.”
The pope’s implementation of this conviction has taken shape above all in the current Synod of Synods. Under his leadership, the institutional Church is looking to the People of God for direction. And if successful, it will result in an entirely new way of being Church.
Its success, however, is questionable in the light of serious and often vicious opposition not only to the synodal process but to Francis’s entire approach to the papacy. Paradoxically, perhaps the best measure of the pope’s effectiveness as well as how tenuous its final outcome may be the corrosive and divisive critical statements by members of the hierarchy and even more ominous, the passive aggression toward him at many levels of the Church.
A public examination of conscience by the Church in the United States is in order here. While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published an honest and comprehensive report on synodal results in this country, a serious doubt remains as to our hierarchy’s being anywhere near “all in” with the spirit of this Synod of Synods. While at the moment the Catholic Church across the world is gathering in person for continental-wide synodal reflections, the Church in North America is doing it virtually. Much less satisfying.
Francis, at 86 years of age, obviously declining, needs our prayers that his legacy will endure.
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.
Photo of Pope Francis: Long Thiên, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons