Pope Francis and a New Reformation?

March 14, 2013

When a friend posted on Facebook “White smoke!” I turned on the television today and wrapped myself in the NBC coverage of the announcement of the new Catholic pope. As a cradle Catholic (who changed lanes into the Presbyterian church at age 22), I have witnessed the election of five popes in my lifetime. Experience as a Presbyterian pastor, leadership of a session, and organizational executive roles have given me only an inkling of the burden this man will bear as leader of over 1 billion souls worldwide. If that thought is staggering to lowly me, imagine how the question of “Who is up to the task?” burned in the corporate soul of those 115 cardinals called to discern God’s will in the matter.

Their announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of Buenos Aires, as the next pope sent several electrifying messages to the world:

Age—76. Pope Francis, as he will be known, was not bypassed because of his age, though the predictors gave him no chance. Some think Pope Francis is too old to make much of an impact on world Catholicism. But hear this: All the 76-year-old pope has to do is call a Third Vatican Council, and the door is wide open for a transparent dialogue and true reformation of the global church, in authentic Franciscan tradition. I for one will pray for just such an invitation.

• Nationality—Argentinian. Son of Italian immigrants to South America, his background offers a reassuring link to Italy (for traditionalists) but a distance from the Roman mess (for reformers). His humor was apparent as he greeted the crowd today: “They [the cardinals] had to go to the ends of the world to find the new bishop of Rome.” The first pope from Latin America celebrates the reality that 37% of the world’s Catholics are Latino. He may be an outsider to Rome, but there is great potential for a global embrace of his papacy simply from ethnic affinity.

• His Name—Francis. After the twelfth-century saint from Assisi, Pope Francis is no doubt signaling a desire to live a simple life, which he has demonstrated as an archbishop and cardinal. But I think even more significant is an affinity with God’s specific call in St. Francis’ life. Abuses of power, off-center theology, and material excesses were already in evidence in northern Italy by his time. In prayer one day, Francis heard God speak to him unmistakably: “Rebuild/reform my church.” And that is what he set out to do. You may consider Francis socially inept or psychologically wacko—he most certainly was unusual in his methods—but there is no doubt in my mind that Francis sparked an authentic and influential renewal movement in the Late Middle Ages. The new pope may well surprise us with his bold initiative to think outside the Vatican box and spark a revival and much needed reform within the institutional church.

• His Order—Jesuit. The Jesuits are as close to an autonomous organization within the Catholic Church as they come: noted for placing a high value on education, theological boldness, and independence, the Jesuits have never produced a pope until now. Doctrinally orthodox—no wandering Jesuit is Borgoglio—yet part of an order that sometimes pushes the envelope in theological discourse, Francis brings something new to the table. I would imagine a few Curia types (institutional preservationists) might be wondering if he is going to be a bull in a china shop. But everybody says he is “gentle.”

• His Spirit—Humble. His reaction during the announcing ceremony today was astonishing for its serenity, gentle humor, deep humility, and reference to his new role as “bishop of Rome,” not “pope.” I know they are one and the same thing, but he referred to himself only as “the bishop,” bowed low to receive the prayers of the crowd for him, and wanted to express his commitment to the flock right there in the Eternal City. There was not one ounce of grandiosity or ego evident today.

• His Vision—Think Global, Act Local. Francis expressed the desire to evangelize the city of Rome. This guy is firmly planted and passionate about the gospel. He understands that in order for the Vatican to reach the world, it must reach its neighborhood first. If that isn’t “missional,” I don’t know what is.

The over-80 cardinal Edward Egan offered NBC commentary prior to the pope’s election, on five qualities this person would need in order to be effective:

  1. A deep, abiding life of prayer, both in private and in public.

  2. A passion to articulate the gospel in an uncomplicated manner.

  3. Leadership in the worldwide quest for justice, compassion, and peace.

  4. The ability to govern firmly and manage a complex organization.

  5. A thick skin, an ability to hear and handle criticism without losing his confidence or vision.

These qualities ring true to me and represent a very tall order only God can fill. So we must all pray for this pope, regardless of our denominational affiliation, simply because he is one of the most visible Christians in the world today. May God grant Pope Francis favor with his people, spiritual protection, ongoing virtue, and a bold gospel witness. For the global church, let us plead, “Lord, clean our house and reform our ways!” Beyond the church, let us pray, “Lord, may the world hear the gospel through this man and turn to Jesus Christ!” All things are possible with God, even a new Reformation led by a pope.

 

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7 Responses to “Pope Francis and a New Reformation?”

  1. redcleric Says:

    I like how he returned to the hotel he was staying in to pay his bill and pick up his suitcases. I guess one of people commented that the hotel is owned by the church which is His church now… I am joyous for my Catholic friends.
    Alan Wilkerson
    Portland

  2. Lowell Says:

    His theology – still Roman.

    • revmary Says:

      Hello, Lowell; yes, the pope’s theology is still Roman and I am still a Presbyterian. I grated at his reliance on Mary, my namesake, but I trust that the Spirit of Jesus Christ will overshadow him just as it overshadowed her. His homily to the cardinals at his first papal mass in the Sistine Chapel today was all about the Cross and being courageous about walking with Jesus. I think we have a lot of common ground upon which to base good will. —Mary

  3. Tom Tyndall Says:

    Reverend Mother Mary, thanks so much for this sobering, sympathetic yet honest initial assessment filled with hopes, even longings, for His Holiness Next. You’ve got the history, a very healthy perspective along with the cooperative spirit that invites some fresh connections to a much needed oldline branch of the Body of Christ. You may not be a female cardinal, but you sure rank close! Well done, not so old pastor.

  4. Steve Stager Says:

    He might also have been thinking of St. Francis Xavier, a missionary Jesuit who took the faith to India and died off the coast of China. St. Xavier would not be a bad namesake for a “missional” pope.

  5. Karen Berns Says:

    Thank you Rev. Mary for sharing your helpful insights in such a compassionate, wise way. Thankful to know you and call you Covenant sister.

  6. Keith McNair Says:

    The institution, the Roman Catholic Church, has chosen to not reform or change. In fact, over time its doctrine has continued to depart further from Scripture. The pre-reformation church of 1000 years ago is very different to the post reformation institution of today. In fact, “reformation” is inaccurate, as there was no reformation or change. There was however schism, opposition and increased doctrinal pronouncements which contrast with Scripture. Of course, a lot can happen in 1000 years. God alone knows what can happen in the next 1000 – maybe the actual reformation, change or “repentance” to which you refer. Sadly, historical evidence to date makes plain that this does not happen and that the opposite does. However, individuals of faith are found in many different structures, not least is the institution, the Roman Catholic Church.

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