Pope Francis is set to lead the transformation of the church – a return perhaps to the trajectory that the Second Vatican Council had envisioned. This is an article I wrote for the latest edition of the Herald.
In 1207, Pope Innocent III had an alarming dream. In his dream he saw the Basilica of St John Lateran, the ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the pope), collapsing.
Now Innocent was a most powerful pope, learned in theology, who had considerable influence over the Christian-led regimes in Europe. But in his dream, the pope, who organised the Fourth Crusade, saw not himself but the little known religious, Francis of Assisi, propping up the church on his shoulders, preventing it from collapsing.
Eight centuries on, could Pope Innocent’s dream finally be realised? The burden of restoring the scandal-plagued church’s credibility and mission to its authentic Gospel path falls on the shoulder of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, who is the first pope to assume the name Francis.
No wonder the first thing the new pope did was to bow his shoulders in the direction of the masses gathered at St Peter’s and ask for their prayers. The weight of the collapsing church is immense.
A few years before Pope Innocent’s dream, the crucified Christ appeared to St Francis of Assisi and implored him, “Go, Francis, and repair my church in ruins.” Now Francis thought that the Lord was asking him to repair the little church of San Damiano, but that little church was only a symbol of the state of spiritual disrepair confronting the universal Church.
Today, the Church is again faced with multiple crises, and the Spirit-inspired Francis of Assisi, who once put into practice the Gospel values of peace, love, and compassion now finds his name-sake at the heart of the universal Church as the new Bishop of Rome. Francis has moved from the periphery to the See of Peter! Who would have imagined a pope named Francis? Was that why lightning twice struck the rod at the top of St Peter’s dome hours after Benedict had announced he was stepping down, perhaps symbolising a break from the sorrowful past and ushering in a new era of renewal for the church?
The new pope has explained why he chose the name Francis: St Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) was “the man of the poor. The man of peace. The man who loved and cared for creation – and in this moment we don’t have such a great relationship with creation.”
These few words give us a sense of the vision of the new Bishop of Rome. “Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor,” he said. And not a moment too soon. We need to be reminded that the Beatitudes starts off with “Blessed are the poor.” So it is about time that the Church strips itself of anything that prevents it from identifying with the joys, sorrows and afflictions of ordinary people especially the poor. This is especially timely given the growing gulf between the rich and the poor and the pressures faced by workers arising from large corporations which have grown in power.
Fittingly, in this golden jubilee of the Second Vatican Council, several commentators have already remarked that the new pope brings back memories of the great Pope John XXIII, who convened the council. We now need to infuse ourselves with the same Spirit that prompted John to open the windows of the church and allow the gust of the Spirit to sweep out the cobwebs.
While millions were waiting for the white smoke at St Peter’s, a bird descended and perched itself on chimney. It was only later after the new pope took the name Francis that some recalled that the friar from Assisi had a great affinity for Creation and saw everything in it as inter-connected. The new pope too seems concerned with our broken relationship with Creation. With climate change upon us, polar ice caps melting and forests being stripped bare, this concern is most timely and should be taken up by the whole church as a matter of urgency.
We need to return to simplicity and ensure our own life-styles leave a minimum carbon footprint both at the individual level and at the parish level. Is it all right to remove the trees, shrubs and greenery in our parishes so that we can build grand physical structures? Are we educating Christians to love and cherish Nature, while promoting a more holistic understanding of human development?
The new Bishop of Rome also appears to be focussed on being more inclusive if his remarks to journalists are anything to go by. He reminded Catholics that it is Jesus and not the pope who is at the centre of the church. But he also told the journalists, “I told you I would willingly give you a blessing. Since many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church and others are non-believers, from the bottom of my heart I give this silent blessing to each and everyone 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 all of you.”
Those inclusive words augur well for a renewed spirit of inter-religious dialogue with other Christian churches and people of other faiths. After all, St Francis is a recognised saint in many other Christian churches and is known for his unusual dialogue with a Muslim leader.
Now there are already some detractors who allege that, as the former Jesuit head in Argentina, Bergoglio failed to stand up for priests who were targeted, arrested and tortured for their work among the poor in the slums – a charge the Vatican has denied.
We won’t know all the facts about the murky past, but even an apostle like Peter, who betrayed Jesus, was given the task of leading the early church. And in the more recent past, the bookish conservative archbishop of El Salvador, chosen because he was believed to be a ‘safe’ choice who wouldn’t rock the boat of the repressive oligarchy that ruled the country, stunned many. Romero, when he saw the 100,000 people gathered for the funeral mass of three murdered people, found himself inspired by the Spirit – “a baptism by the people.”
They “were applauding him, and you could see him grow stronger. It was then that he crossed the threshold. He went through the door. Because, you know, there is baptism by water, and there is baptism by blood. But there is also baptism by the people,” related Inocencio Alas in Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic. Romero’s life was never the same after that.
The 150,000 gathered at St Peter’s and millions more around the world are praying for Pope Francis to be similarly inspired and rise to the occasion, to revamp the Vatican curia and resume the renewal process that Vatican II began a half century ago. The call to repair the church, first heard by the little Francis of Assisi more than 800 years ago, would finally be heeded.
Source: Catholic Herald