We’re now a little over a week into the pontificate of Pope Francis, the 265th Successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome. In my homily at St. Agnes Catholic Church this past weekend, I tried to connect our new Holy Father to both the past and the future of the Church – you can listen to the homily here. Late last week, I gave some of my initial impressions of Pope Francis, and many people have been offering their views and commentaries in the recent days that have seen the Mass inaugurating his Petrine Ministry and a number of occasions to see more of the personality and public style of the Holy Father. For what it’s worth, here are some of the thoughts that I have been ruminating on in these days …
Ecumenical Reaction – Last Friday, I had dinner with several pastors who have been participants in the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program, which I participated in during 2011 and 2012. These pastors represented a variety of Christian denominations, from Lutheran and Episcopalian to American Baptist and Methodist. There seemed to be genuine excitement among them at their first impressions of Pope Francis – even though they do not view the papacy in the same way we do as Catholics, they recognize how important the leadership of the Pope is in the world and among all people of faith. They were impressed by his humility and simplicity and were sincerely happy for both the Catholic Church and the world. Earlier that same day, I received an e-mail from another friend who is an ordained minister in a Protestant church who told me that he was at least one Protestant who bowed his head in prayer when the newly-elected Pope Francis asked people to pray for him before he gave his first blessing as Pope. Our Holy Father is a Pope for the world, for all people – not just Catholics. Not everyone will agree with what he teaches, but there seems to be an openness – and that is a good beginning.
Peter and Andrew – For the first time since the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches split in the year 1054, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople – first among equals of the Orthodox Patriarchs – attended the Inaugural Mass of a Bishop of Rome. The next day, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew spoke to Pope Francis on behalf of the leaders of the various Churches, ecclesial communities, and faith groups that had attended the Mass. In his response, Pope Francis referred to Patriarch Bartholomew as “my brother Andrew” – the successor of St. Peter, first Bishop of Rome, greeting the successor of St. Andrew, first Bishop of Constantinople – brother to brother. The historical significance of this meeting and conversation is remarkable – one of the most monumental steps in dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in a thousand years.
“They haven’t elected a theologian; they’ve elected a pastor” – This headline on a blog over the weekend summarized a lot of my thoughts in these days. At different times in the history of the Church, we need leaders and shepherds with different gifts – both Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were theologians – and we needed shepherds in those days who could present the Catholic faith systematically and beautifully. Pope Francis – while a theologian in his own right – is first of all a pastor, and that is what the Church and the world needs today: a pastor who loves and connects with both individuals and the whole Church, who is a man of the people, who is a man of action, who can inspire others to lives of Christian service and justice. The video of Pope Francis after presiding at Mass on Sunday at the parish church of St. Anne’s in the Vatican showed this – he did what any pastor would do after Mass: stand outside the church and greet people. At this time in the history of the Church, we need a Pope who is a pastor.
Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper – Just this morning, the Vatican Press Office announced that Pope Francis will celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a juvenile prison in Rome. Traditionally, the Pope celebrates this Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, his Cathedral Church in Rome – but Pope Francis has not yet made an official visit to the Lateran as Bishop of Rome, so it can’t be held there this year. The Vatican press secretary had earlier said that he though the Holy Thursday Mass would be at St. Peter’s Basilica, but today it appears Pope Francis had other plans – and this decision makes sense in light of what we have come to know about him, that he has a great love for the poor and marginalized and takes concrete actions to make sure they are included in the life of the Church. This is a man whose actions reflect his words – he doesn’t just talk about reaching out to the poor, he actually does it – and in doing so, he is inspiring all of us to do the same.
The pontificate of Pope Francis is still very young, and we will continue to get to know our new shepherd and the blessing he will be to the Church and the world. As I mentioned in my homily this past weekend (see link at the beginning of this post), both the Church and the world are in need of rebuilding – and the Holy Spirit has entrusted the leadership of this rebuilding to Pope Francis. But not just to him – to all of us. Each in our own way, we must be open to change – conversion – in order to become the disciples God has called us to be. And we can look to our chief shepherd as a witness to what disciples look like in our world today.