I am ecstatic at the news that “Habemus Papam,” We have a pope! It was wonderful to witness the white smoke and the Urbi et Orbi blessing here in the Mission House, in community with other Catholic families. It is certainly something I will remember… with everyone muttering “Who’s Bergoglio?” and scrambling to look him up on wikipedia, which had already been updated. There was immediately much (electronic) ink spilled about the new Holy Father, and I have read that Francis is too conservative, too liberal, too modernist, too reactionary, a great pastor, a terrible pastor, humble, ambitious, wonderful that he’s a Jesuit, terrible that he’s an orthodox Jesuit, etc., etc., etc.
the picture is funny if you squint your eyes a little and imagine he’s looking down at a very large, very squat Christmas tree decorated with light. Consider that my contribution to alter the photo for fair use.
More on Pope Francis later. First, I need to note something.
I had only known one living pope my entire life until 2005. I had grown up loving and honoring and heeding the life and ministry of Pope Bl. John Paul II, and when he died and left the Chair of Peter vacant, a deep, yawning pit opened up in my heart. I had only known one kind of pope, a JPII pope, and I didn’t know what to expect. The election of Ratzinger was surprising not so much in that it happened, but in what unfolded during his pontificate. I knew that Ratzinger had been close to JPII, but I also knew of his reputation as a hard-nosed enforcer. What we got was something much different… certainly not a cuddly pope, however Benedict was always patient, kind, compassionate, thoughtful… if you paid attention!
I began to know what it was like to be surprised by the pope. If I sat back, unengaged, and allowed my preconceived notions (or those of others!) to guide my thinking, the Pope merely presented the same old faith, warmed over for this Sunday’s homily. But that’s not what you get when you pay attention! Our faith is in a truth that is ever ancient, but also ever new. And when you pay attention to what the pope preaches, you just might be surprised.
I remember a conversation I had with a Lutheran pastor friend of mine about sin. She was adamant about the existence of social sin, structural sin, whereas I had been taught that sin is always personal, even when it affects society at large. Naturally, in the conversation/debate that developed, I pushed back hard against her. However, years later, Benedict surprised me when he noted that original sin leads to individual sins which can lead to the development of structures of sin. Certainly, Benedict and the Lutheran Pastor would disagree about much, but there was no denying that there was some common ground there.
Once, when reading up about moral theology and looking up actions which are always wrong because they are objectively wrong, I was surprised to find John Paul II include deportation along with homicide and abortion and genocide. (they’re not necessarily identical in gravity, but they’re always wrong).
And so, going back and reading, and re-reading, the words of Benedict, John Paul II, Pius XI, Leo XIII, I find myself surprised by what I find: I am surprised by the beauty, the foresight, the consistency, and often I am surprised that what I think the Church teaches isn’t always true, or at least it’s not always the full picture.
And now we get to Pope Francis! What a blessing it is to have a new Holy Father, a sign of unity, a leader to look to. And in one night, he has taught us so much. In his brief appearance on the loggia of St. Peter’s, he took the time to pray with the people for the bishop emeritus of Rome, our beloved Benedict. He took the time to ask the people to pray for him, including 15 seconds of silent prayer. But that’s not all, and there was something subtle in his off-the-cuff remarks:
“And now, together, let us start this road: bishop and people. This [new] path of the church of Rome, which “presides in charity” [over] all the churches. A path of brotherhood, of love, of trust between us. Let us pray always for ourselves: one for the other.”
Catch that? The relationship between the pontiff and the people is one of authority, but also one of brotherhood, love, and trust. We, the people, trust the Pope, but the pope also trusts us. He must, for we do the work of the Church! The bond of trust is a two-way street, and while we trust the Holy Father to lead us, he trusts us to follow.
So let us follow, and let us place our trust in our Holy Father to lead us. Let’s not worry about if he’s too liberal or too conservative or too cerebral or too inexperienced or too whatever. Let us trust that the Holy Spirit guided the election process and continues to guide the Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Let us continue the attack on sin and the forces of evil, with the Sacraments as our weapons, looking to our leader in this battle and heeding all that he teaches us.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to be surprised.