[Re-posted from yesterday]
If we leave legitimate questions about his past for a moment, can I pause to marvel at his present?
The reports of his press conference today suggest a radically new symbolism for the church. This kind of understanding of the diverse and multi-faith and multi-cultural modernity is something you would never have heard from Benedict XVI:
“Given that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence, to each one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God. May God bless you.”
Respecting the conscience of each of you. That might seem to be the bleeding obvious – but it isn’t in the context of Benedict’s theological reign, which was far longer than his pontifical one. Benedict wanted to place conscience below revelation as authoritatively adjudicated by … himself. The central place of individual conscience established at the Second Council was left to wither in favor of a public, uniform religion. He seemed to me to want ultimately to restore the seamless cultural-political-religious unity of the Bavaria of his youth; and if the public square were empty, it had to be filled with religious authority. He tried. In the West, the public square moved in the opposite direction. He hunkered down, hoping for a smaller, purer church. What he got was a smaller one, but beset by scandal and internal division and a legacy of the most horrendous of crimes.
Francis seems to me to be taking the world as it is, but showing us a different way of living in it. These are first impressions, but there seems much less fear there of the modern world, much greater ease with humanity. And human beings like narratives – not opaque and ornate theologies. Jesus always spoke in simple stories and parables. And so today:
“Let me tell you a story,” [Pope Francis] said. He then recounted how during the conclave he had sat next to Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of Brazil, whom he called “a great friend.” After the voting, Cardinal Hummes “hugged me, he kissed me and he said, ‘Don’t forget the poor!’ And that word entered here,” the pope said, pointing to his heart.
“I thought of wars, while the voting continued, through all the votes,” he said as he sat on the stage in a hall inside the Vatican. “And Francis is the man of peace. And that way the name came about, came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.”
To see our two huge temptations today as war and massive inequality is, it seems to me, the Holy Spirit at work. We should remember St Francis’ pilgrimage to the Muslim authorities of his day. We should recall Saint Francis’ direct experience of the horror of war which changed his life. And then how that epiphany on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war led to Francis’ embrace of lepers as his most beloved, of a shack as the place he’d call home, and the giving away of his entire worldly goods – indeed even his own clothes – in order to be free in the spirit of Jesus’ true freedom.
He had a couple of other thoughts for journalists, too. Reporting on the church is different from other contemporary matters, he said, because the church is essentially a spiritual organization that does “not fit into worldly categories.” “The church does not have a political nature,” he said.
We’ll see exactly what he means by that phrase in due course – he certainly involved himself in the political and social debates in his home country. But an emphasis on the centrally apolitical stance of Christianity, indeed on the fact that in core ways, Christianity is the antidote to the pursuit of power over others … well, count me quietly elated. Again, of course, Saint Francis’ renunciation of power comes to mind. And his simplicity:
Instead of the usual formal blessing – standard practice at papal audiences – he said quietly, “God bless you,” and walked off the stage.
And didn’t get into his limo, preferring to walk on foot to his Vatican residence. In my own thoughts and prayers in this crisis of Christianity, I found myself returning to Saint Francis, as readers know. I think he is the saint the church turns to when it has truly lost its way, when it needs to be rebuilt humbly, painfully, from the current ruins.
If that is what happened in the heart of Bergoglio in the conclave, if the spirit of Francis entered his heart as a man of peace and tolerance and humility, as he says, then we have more than cause for optimism.
We have cause for real hope.
(Photo: A detail of the shoes of newly elected Pope Francis as he attends his first audience with journalists and media inside the Paul VI hall on March 16, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The pope thanked the media for their coverage during the historic transition of the papacy and explained his vision of the future for the Catholic Church. By Franco Origlia/Getty Images.)