Some eight hundred years ago a young soldier reposed in prayer at a wayside chapel on the outskirts of Assisi. It was there that the young man, named Francis, heard and heeded the divine will of God, ‘Go, repair my house which as you see is falling into ruin.’ This moment of great faith and also of intense tribulation for the Church of Christ provides a fitting backdrop to the announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as the 266th Bishop of Rome, with the appellation of Pope Francis.
Bergoglio, until this morning the Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires, presents as an ideal candidate to renew the Church in the present, beset as it is by the ongoing scandal of the sexual abuse crisis and an accompanying collapse of credibility in the public square, widespread persecution in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the challenge of rapid and aggressive secularisation in the West, and significant issues of church governance that, it must be admitted, have hindered the ability of the Church to respond effectively to these concerns as well as the broader needs of human culture and society.
Of course, it is naïve to assume that any one figure can bring about the conversion that remains the responsibility of the whole body of the Catholic faithful and it can be too easy to either acclaim or criticise those called to a service of leadership from afar while one sits comfortably on their hide. Naïve it would be, too, to assume a simply address of Church structures will provide the necessary medicine for the afflictions suffered by the Church on account of its members who, like the first disciples, know their poverty of spirit all too well.
Nevertheless, it is true that ‘leadership matters’ and it arrives with the responsibility to take up these great challenges with courage and the conviction that the current woes of the Catholic Church are not a fulfilment of its nature but a contradiction to its mission as the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’ (Lumen Gentium 48). In other words, leadership brings with it the demands and gift of hope, a hope that brings the future into the present and affirms that this moment of history, filled as it may be with trial and tribulation, does not exhaust all possibilities.
Doubtless much ink will be spilt about Pope Francis and his capacity to realise these possibilities in the years ahead. Already there has been a positive assessment for his acute concern for the poor, a virtue that is indeed evident throughout his episcopal career in Latin America, and for his prayerful acceptance of the responsibilities of the Petrine Office. The inspiration of Bergoglio’s papal name in the mendicant saint of Assisi augurs well for a pontificate marked by a focus on a renewed mission of evangelisation which responds to the poor, to poverty in its social and spiritual dimensions.
Who are these ‘poor’? There are those poor in spirit who have yet to hear the Good News of the Risen Jesus, sent from the Father and encountered in the Spirit; there are the poor in discipleship who have heard but not received this living Word within the depths of their life; there are the poor in circumstance who cry out for the bare necessities of life and who make a claim on the Church’s faith, and there is the poverty of the Church itself which remains ever incomplete in its human dimension, in need of conversion to the source of its life.
The credentials of Pope Francis to take on this missionary enterprise are certainly in evidence. In an interview with Vatican Insider, a media service run by the daily newspaper La Stampa, Bergoglio called the Church to return to its foundational ‘memory’, the memory of Christ and the urgency of his Gospel message. Reflecting on the current Year of Faith, the then-Archbishop reminded his audience that faith is not given to us for our own consolation or comfort but as a gift for others:
Benedict XVI has insisted on the renewal of faith being a priority and presents faith as a gift that must be passed on, a gift to be offered to others and to be shared as a gratuitous act. It is not a possession, but a mission. This priority indicated by the Pope has a commemorative purpose: through the Year of Faith we remember the gift we have received. And there are three pillars to this: the memory of having been chosen, the memory of the promise that was made to us and the alliance that God has forged with us. We are called to renew this alliance, our belonging to the community of God’s faithful.
It is memory of our election, the promises of God and our communion with Him that reminds us who we as Church. Like those who suffer amnesia, the Church, without this fundamental threefold memory, loses its sense of self, its very identity, and so its purpose. The Archbishop went on to remark,
We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first . . .
Bergoglio identifies the need of the Church to resist insularity, to move from ecclesiolatry to a new evangelisation, from fear of the world’s unknown dimensions to an embrace of Gospel life within its very domain. This is the path of conversion that will bring renewed vitality and hope to the Church catholic. It is ‘on the street’ and in the public square that the Church will regain its innocence and vigour; it is in world-engaging mission that the Church grows young.
Finally, the election of a Latin American to the papacy, the first non-European pope for twelve centuries, recalls for the Church its essential universality, a ‘Pentecostal’ breadth and diversity that implies a universality of mission, a mission not only to the West but ad gentes, to the East and global south. While differing in specific contexts, there is a continuity of global need that must enliven the Church’s faith: pressing issues of social and economic injustice, including gross exploitation of women and children, the endangered rights of the unborn and the voiceless, the victims of war and poverty, the spiritual imprisonment of those without hope.
As shepherd and teacher, leader and servant of the Church’s faith, we pray that Pope Francis will be given the courage and succour of the Holy Spirit to fulfil his great responsibilities. As Easter approaches may he, like the first Peter, grow firmly in his role as witness and messenger of Easter faith and proclaim Christ as Risen in humble service of the Church and to the world.