Pope Francis will lead the Roman Catholic Church toward—and possibly into—an unprecedented period in its history.
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Plumes of white smoke, pouring for minutes on end from a temporarily installed chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, heralded the selection of a new pope on March 13. The decision came quickly on the second day of balloting. From a list of about 20 papabili (likely candidates) came an unexpected pick: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, onetime Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Born in the Argentinian capital to working-class Italian parents, Cardinal Bergoglio chose to carry the name Francis during his papacy. Many were taken aback that a 76-year-old was elected, expecting a younger pope this time—particularly in light of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, having resigned, stating, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to [the papal office].”
Despite placing second on the ballot during the last papal conclave in 2005, Bergoglio was not a household name.
The transition from Benedict to Pope Francis has been groundbreaking, but with some echoes of history. What can be learned from how it unfolded? And as the fanfare fades and the reality of a new leader sets in, what can we expect from the first pope to hail from either the Western or Southern hemispheres?
Benedict’s papacy was overshadowed by dark clouds from the beginning. As one example, he inherited far-reaching allegations of abuse by Catholic clergy in Europe, North America, and elsewhere. The aftermath of this involved apologies, lawsuits, resignations, large financial settlements, and serious credibility damage.
In addition, Catholics have been leaving European cathedral pews increasingly empty, including in Benedict’s native Germany. On that continent, ex-Catholics appear to be largely dropping out of organized religion altogether. In other regions, Pentecostal and other Protestant denominations are drawing away considerable numbers.
Benedict was not the natural figure to oversee a Roman church in crisis. If John Paul II was a media-savvy, globe-trotting statesman, Benedict was an academic, professor-like pope who expected his writings and speeches—called a “master class” on Catholicism by some church members—to be water poured on the flames of discontent within the fold.
But the attacks and crises did not stop, culminating in what one Vatican official labeled “Vatileaks”—a release of documents that may have been the last straw as explained by the Guardian: “[Italian newspaper La Repubblica] said the pope had taken the decision on 17 December that he was going to resign—the day he received a dossier compiled by three cardinals delegated to look into the so-called ‘Vatileaks’ affair.
“Last May Pope Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested and charged with having stolen and leaked papal correspondence that depicted the Vatican as a seething hotbed of intrigue and infighting.
“According to La Repubblica, the dossier comprising ‘two volumes of almost 300 pages—bound in red’ had been consigned to a safe in the papal apartments and would be delivered to the pope’s successor upon his election.
“The newspaper said the cardinals described a number of factions, including one whose members were ‘united by sexual orientation’.
“In an apparent quotation from the report, La Repubblica said some Vatican officials had been subject to ‘external influence’ from laymen with whom they had links of a ‘worldly nature’. The paper said this was a clear reference to blackmail.”
In his farewell address, Benedict alluded to an account in the gospel of Matthew: “…there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but [Jesus] was asleep” (8:24).
He stated that his papacy had “been a stretch of the Church’s pilgrim way, which has seen moments of joy and light, but also difficult moments. I have felt like St. Peter with the apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been—and the Lord seemed to sleep.”
Benedict was the first pope in nearly six centuries to step out of office. Since the start of the Catholic church, there have been perhaps seven resignations. The last occurred in 1415 with the abdication of Gregory XII. This move helped end the Great Schism, a time when two church factions were led by competing French and Italian popes.
But an even earlier resignation has been linked to the most recent one.
Celestine V, whose entire papacy fit within the latter half of 1294, had a tumultuous run that ended with his stepping down. Benedict seemed to make no secret of his affinity for Celestine, who is called the “hermit pope” because of his monastic life before becoming pontiff, in which he lived austerely in a primitive hut.
After an earthquake struck the Italian city of L’Aquila in April 2009, observers unknowingly saw a harbinger of things to come: “…Pope Benedict came to console victims. He prayed before Celestine’s coffin,” NPR reported. “In a highly symbolic gesture, Benedict laid upon it a most sacred vestment—his pallium, or a kind of scarf.
“Shortly after that, Celestine’s coffin was moved for a while. It was paraded slowly through the narrow streets, on the back of a small truck, to the nearby town of Sulmona.
“Benedict went to pray before Celestine’s remains there, too.
“The significance of the two visits is ‘quite staggering,’ says [George Ferzoco, an expert on Celestine at England’s Bristol University]. To him, it’s amazing no one saw the message behind Benedict’s actions.
“‘He was showing that it is permissible, licit, and in some cases spiritually beneficial that a pope may resign for the good of his soul and for the benefit of his flock,’ Ferzoco says.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia offered the following account of Celestine V’s tenure: “It is wonderful how many serious mistakes the simple old man crowded into five short months…he created twelve new cardinals, seven of whom were French, and the rest, with one possible exception, Neapolitans [each suggested to Celestine by the King of Naples, Charles II], thus paving the road to Avignon and the Great Schism…At Benevento he created the bishop of the city a cardinal, without observing any of the traditional forms. Meanwhile he scattered privileges and offices with a lavish hand. Refusing no one, he was found to have granted the same place or benefice to three or four rival suitors; he also granted favours in blank. In consequence, the affairs of the Curia fell into extreme disorder…he was ill at ease. Affairs of State took up time that ought to be devoted to exercises of piety. He feared that his soul was in danger. The thought of abdication seems to have occurred simultaneously to the pope and to his discontented cardinals, whom he rarely consulted.
“That the idea originated with Cardinal Gaetani the latter vigorously denied, and maintained that he originally opposed it. But the serious canonical doubt arose: Can a pope resign? As he has no superior on earth, who is authorized to accept his resignation? The solution of the question was reserved to the trained canonist, Cardinal Gaetani, who, basing his conclusion on common sense and the Church’s right to self-preservation, decided affirmatively.”
Note that Cardinal Gaetani became the next pope, Boniface VIII!
The encyclopedia continues: “When the report spread that Celestine contemplated resigning, the excitement in Naples [where Celestine had chosen to station himself, far from Rome and close to King Charles] was intense. King Charles, whose arbitrary course had brought things to this crisis, organized a determined opposition. A huge procession of the clergy and monks surrounded the castle, and with tears and prayers implored the pope to continue his rule…A week later (13 December) Celestine’s resolution was irrevocably fixed; summoning the cardinals on that day, he…announced his resignation, and proclaimed the cardinals free to proceed to a new election…the next day Benedetto Gaetani was proclaimed Pope…After revoking many of the provisions made by Celestine, Boniface brought his predecessor, now in the dress of a humble hermit, with him on the road to Rome. He was forced to retain him in custody, lest [a hostile] use should be made of the simple old man. Celestine…managed to effect his escape…Boniface ordered his arrest; but Celestine evaded his pursuers for several months by wandering through the woods and mountains. Finally, he attempted to cross the Adriatic to Greece; but, driven back by a tempest, and captured at the foot of Mt. Gargano, he was delivered into the hands of Boniface, who confined him closely in a narrow room…Here, after nine months passed in fasting and prayer, closely watched but attended by two of his own religious, though rudely treated by the guards, he ended his extraordinary career in his eighty-first year.”
This kind of historical turmoil is cited by some Catholics as proof that the church will weather the current storms—just as it has in the past.
Much of what has caused the Vatican to lose ground in Europe and North America lies in its positions on so-called social issues—stands which are rejected by most younger people. Many are gender-related. The church’s opposition to abortion (and all other contraceptives), its stance against homosexual marriage, doctrine of celibate priests, and limits on female leadership roles all make it appear antiquated and out of touch to many.
As the papal conclave neared, one chain of events summed up the church’s troubles all too well. Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien stated in a BBC interview that the new pope should reconsider the church’s longstanding position on celibacy for priests. This of course drew the ire of Catholic traditionalists, but others were angry for another reason. They recalled his vocal opposition to homosexual marriage and accused him of hypocrisy and a double standard. But only days after that interview, he resigned from his position after admitting to past sexual misconduct.
In this atmosphere of public criticism and shake-ups, some fear that Benedict’s resignation will set a precedent, with every pope from now on subject to a chorus of “step down” demands from both within and outside the church.
But the larger struggle transcends any given hot-button issue, and even any particular pontiff.
While some deny the church is in crisis, there are two strong currents that are tugging its lay members and clergy in opposite directions: the desire to reform and change, as opposed to the determination to hold steady or even turn back the clock.
Forty years have passed since the last concerted effort to modernize the church, the Second Vatican Council.
Benedict, once a reformer, ultimately came to be known as an arch-conservative, first in his position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition), when he was called Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and then as pope. He has stated that Vatican II’s decrees have been misinterpreted and were never intended as a step toward 20th-century values. A piece in The New Yorker pointedly called him “the man who, for the past thirty-two years, enforced and eventually led the doctrinal retreat into the Middle Ages begun by his predecessor.”
As the days passed between Benedict’s resignation and the Sistine Chapel’s white smoke, a huge question was on the minds of millions, yet in various forms: “Will the new pope be a traditionalist or reformer?”…“Insider or outsider?”…“European or non-European?”…“Conservative or freethinker?”
Enter Pope Francis. In the days following his selection, he has been well received by Catholics around the world, partly because he embodies elements of both opposing currents. He carries the political and demographic advantages, novelty and breath-of-fresh-air appeal of a pontiff from the developing world—the first from Latin America and first from the Americas, edging out candidates from the United States and Canada. But at the same time, he is of Italian stock, as have been most popes through the centuries.
Francis is the first pope to be associated with the church’s liberation theology movement, which arose in Latin America in the 1970s. This school of thought asserts that the Bible can be truly understood only through the eyes of the poor, and advocates political involvement to help tip the balance of power and public resources away from elites and toward the lower classes who are victims of unjust social structures. (While both John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger initially opposed liberation theology and viewed it as a dangerous mix of theology with Marxism, they softened over time.)
But if this element of his background is seen as leftist, are his doctrinal views liberal? “The changes he is expected to bring to the Catholic Church are not likely to affect doctrine,” The Christian Science Monitor stated. “Pope Francis is a doctrinal conservative like his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Where he may make his mark is in his personal commitment to issues of inequality, including poverty and globalization, as well as in tapping his outsider status at the Vatican to promote reform.”
He is also the first Jesuit pope. Members of the Society of Jesus, a male-only order, take vows of poverty; Ignatius, who co-founded the order with Francis Xavier, wanted to emulate Francis of Assisi, the “Poor Little Man” who was born to wealth and renounced it to devote himself to evangelism. The Jesuits are a teaching order that runs schools and universities around the world including Georgetown and Loyola in the United States. A controversial group, they have been expelled from many countries since their establishment in 1534, including Spain, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Russia and others. France alone has exiled them three times. Most of these nations eventually re-admitted them, but Switzerland permanently banned the order in 1847.
Why did Cardinal Bergoglio take the name Francis, also a first? According to CNN, “a fellow cardinal from Brazil had told him ‘don’t forget the poor’ as the votes stacked up in his favor.
“This thought stuck in his mind, Francis said, as it became clear that he had won the two-thirds majority that meant he was the new pontiff.
“‘Right away, with regard to the poor, I thought of St. Francis of Assisi, then I thought of war…Francis loved peace and that is how the name came to me.’
“He had also thought of St. Francis of Assisi’s concern for the natural environment, he said, and how he was a ‘poor man, a simple man, as we would like a poor church, for the poor.’”
Columnist Peggy Noonan highlighted another parallel from history in The Wall Street Journal: “One of the most famous moments in St. Francis’s life is the day he was passing by the church of St. Damiano. It was old and near collapse. From St. Bonaventure’s ‘Life of Francis of Assisi’: ‘Inspired by the Spirit, he went inside to pray. Kneeling before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with great fervor and consolation…While his tear-filled eyes were gazing at the Lord’s cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”’ Francis was amazed ‘at the sound of this astonishing voice, since he was alone in the church.’ He set himself to obeying the command.
“Go and repair my house, which is falling into ruin. Could the new pope’s intentions be any clearer?”
Those wishing for major changes in Roman Catholic teaching are bound to be disappointed. Commenting on the direction of Francis’s papacy on “CBS This Morning,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan flatly stated, “He’s not going to tamper with the immutable [irreversible, absolute] teaching of the church.” On the whole, Catholic doctrine has not changed, other than on details of policy or procedure.
While its growth has continued, it has relied on gains in Latin America and Africa to balance losses in North America and Europe. Beyond the early 19th century, it has never regained its status as the civilized world’s kingmaker, as it held during the centuries of the Holy Roman Empire. But to truly dominate once again, it must sit astride a dominant political power—a resurgent Europe.
Can Europe rise again? After years of financial crisis and bureaucratic paper-shuffling in the European Union, it seems unlikely.
But one source makes plain that Europe will rise again—the Bible.
It is well known that the Catholic Church acknowledges the Bible, but places tradition and the writings of its founders and popes ahead of Scripture in importance.
Only the Bible, however, has foretold the rise and fall of whole empires and even individual leaders. For example, the Persian king Cyrus was prophesied—by name!—to eventually perform certain divinely inspired tasks, decades before his birth (Isa. 44:28; 45:1). Many other examples could be cited, including detailed prophecies of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greco-Macedonian and Roman empires as seen in the books of Daniel and Revelation.
Europe will come to dominate the globe, and with it, so will the “original” European church. But what will make this church—a hierarchy seen by many modern minds as a holdover from the era of castles, knights, competing kings and princes, feudal lords and peasants—relevant to the masses once again?
As a Der Spiegel article succinctly stated, “What it’s seeking is a miracle.” Miracles—events that could only be supernatural—will soon galvanize Catholics, accelerate reunion with Orthodox Christians and Protestants, and confound agnostics and atheists! This will occur—and is just over the horizon.