I suppose I'm still trying to process the election of our new Pope Francis. The transition from Blessed John Paul II to his trusted collaborator Cardinal Ratzinger was relatively straightforward. I was already well familiar with the gentle professor from Bavaria who grew into the man I revere as Pope Benedict XVI. His resignation and retirement into a monastic life of prayer for the Church was a huge surprise, and it was only after the excitement of the announcement of Pope Francis and his charming 'Buona sera' to the world and the people of Rome died away, that I began to realise how strange it would be to adjust to a new Pope, and one who was only slightly known to me as a Cardinal before his election.
Francis is neither Benedict XVI nor John Paul II
I suppose the first (blindingly obvious) point to be made is that Francis is neither Benedict nor John Paul and it does a huge injustice to all concerned if we expect all Popes to be the same.
I know that parish clergy are familiar with the phenomenon that there there is no priest as good as the man who preceded him in his parish. I had the experience recently of talking to a woman from a parish where a very popular priest was being replaced by a younger successor. In conversation, she told me how upset she was that Fr Pat was going to another parish and how there would be no one ever like him. "Well," I said, "aren't you getting Fr Joe in his place, I know him well and he's a fine priest too." I don't know whether I was hoping to ease her disquiet or to wring from her some expression of positivity towards the new man. Whatever I had hoped she'd say, I must confess that I was disappointed when all she could reply was that there was no one like the man who was leaving.
In retrospect, I suppose it testifies to the fact that priests do make a positive impression in people's lives, and the (honest) conviction that no one could be as good as the priest is a by-product of that positive effect. And as things happen, when it's time for the little-regarded newcomer to move on, he'll have become the one that everyone misses and believes to irreplaceable.
The Church has been through an extraordinary period of almost three-and-a-half decades (half a biblical lifespan!) when the successor of St Peter has been a top-drawer intellectual. Blessed John Paul II was a fine philosopher, whilst his collaborator was one of the theological greats of the age. Blessed John Paul II's magisterium was particularly fruitful, whilst Benedict XVI came to the Petrine Ministry with a higher theological profile (in terms of books published, etc...) than any of his successors to date. We might have gotten used to what is, historically speaking, an anomaly. Certainly previous Popes were fine scholars and brilliant men. However, very few were intellectuals in the way that John Paul and Benedict were. We forget that we have often had Popes in the past who were diplomats or pastors or canonists, who have successfully steered the Barque of Peter making use of the talents and charisms they themselves have had. There is a saying, after a fat Pope, a lean Pope - a reminder that Popes differ in their talents and that it may well be the Church needs a Pope who differs from the man who came before him.
I suspect that we'll need a decade or two to properly digest the magisterial contributions of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They have laid down the intellectual framework within which the Church has received the Second Vatican Council. The outlook of the priests formed under their influence will have its impact in the years to come. Now, however, that the intellectual foundation has been laid, perhaps it is time for Peter to do something else, whilst the Church as a whole draws on the teachings of his two predecessors.
The Jesuit Pope
In the short time that I've come to see him, Pope Francis has reminded me of some of the best of the Jesuit who taught me in Rome. We have heard much about the simplicity of his life - the apartment in Buenos Aires, his use of public transport, his nearness to the poor. All that is typical of the best sort of Jesuit. They live a simple life and are totally committed to the mission assigned to them. It's interesting to note from his biography that he has had a very varied range of ministries - a man qualified in chemical engineering, he has also taught literature and psychology, been involved in the formation of religious, done parish work, served as Jesuit Provincial in his home country and has served as a Bishop. If the impression he has made as Archbishop of Buenos Aires is anything to go by, he has that Ignatian charism of giving oneself totally to one's mission in obedience to ones superiors. I think that augers well for a Papacy that will be one of service, distinctive and innovative in style, perhaps, but above all obedient to the Lord who entrusts him with this ministry.
The Latin-American Background
It seems that to make sense of our new Pope, we need to take into account his Latin American background. Much has been made of the supposed contrast between his doctrinal conservatism and his care for the poor. It genuinely grieves me that it should be accepted as a commonplace that one can be either orthodox or compassionate, but rarely, if ever both.
From my rather crude understanding of things, the Church in Latin America has struggled with the attractions of both the political left and right. On one hand, there exists the temptation of 'protecting' the Church by siding with the so-called right, turning a blind eye to corruption and oppression for the sake of preserving the status of the Church as an institution. On the other hand, one can opt for the so-called 'left' and buy into a kind of Marxism that sides with the poor, albeit at the cost of some basic Christian principles and the danger of flirting with revolutionary violence. As I say, that's an exceptionally crude caricature of the lay of the land there, but the most authentic response of the Church is to reject such a devilish dilemma by remaining true to the Gospel in its fullness.
I thought that Pope Francis's first homily as Pope was very telling.
He preached Christ, the Cross and our inability to build anything as a Church if we do not build on Christ. He said:
we can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ.Confession of Christ is at the core, and Francis has done that in his ministry to the poor in Buenos Aires. He insisted that more priests work in the barrios and frequently visited the poorest parts of his diocese in a spirit of service and solidarity with the poor. And yet, he rejected the so-called liberation theology movement.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as head of the CDF, was hugely critical of this movement. He saw that in reducing the work of the Church to political and economic liberation, there was an implicit rejection of Christ. In making the Church just another participant in class warfare, the image of God as Old Testament liberator was not 'filled out' by the fuller vision of God given to us through His beloved Son. The Cross was perceived purely as a sign of oppression, rather than as God's own instrument to bring about liberation. Ratzinger feared that the theological analysis of some Liberation Theologians essentially excluded Christ, and in so doing, failed to respect the right of the poor to receive not only social and economic justice, but also the spiritual and intellectual liberation that is given to us in Christ Himself. To deny the poor that kind liberation and to make of the Church's mission something primarily economic or political was, Ratzinger argued, a denial of the full humanity of the poor.
I would read the homily of Pope Francis as being in continuity with Ratzinger on this Christological point.
My Hopes for Pope Francis
I must say that I was charmed and continue to be charmed by our new Pope. He is not the towering figure of John Paul II or a gentle professorial guide like Benedict XVI. He will build on their foundations, but he will not be exactly like either of them.
Having read some of his preaching as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, it's clear that his style is not as intellectual or refined as his two predecessors. I don't mean, of course, that he's not a thinker - he's a very accomplished and intelligent man. Even though Benedict spoke with great clarity, I suspect that he will challenge us more directly than Benedict did, and, whilst not as natural a man for crowds as John Paul II, I suspect Francis will hit us straight between the eyes with the Gospel and shame us into being better Christians.
Much has been laid on the shoulders of Pope Francis so far as Curial reform is concerned. I don't know enough about him to know what his background is in this. He's definitely a Curial outsider, never having served in the Roman Curia, but has been on a number of important Vatican Congregations, so he's not totally naive either. Some reports say that his time as provincial of the Jesuits and as head of the Argentinian Bishops' Conference show him to have the capacity to administer and reform. I certainly hope so, and trust that the evident goodwill and affection of his fellow Cardinals and the Church as a whole will stand to him in this task.
Finally, I pray that the warmth and affection that the world has for Pope Francis will help him make Christ known, that he will, by his way of life and preaching win many hearts and souls for Christ and His Church, and help those of us within the fold to live our vocations more authentically.