Looking around news sites and blogs, one can see that the world is impressed. Maybe it can even be said that the world is smitten. It is wonderful how quickly people have taken to His Holiness. A priest friend of mine once said to me that the two easiest people to criticize are one’s predecessor and one’s successor. I think that what I love most about Pope Francis is that he has been loved so quickly not in relation to Pope Benedict, but on his own merits. I love Pope Benedict. But, already, it seems that I love Pope Francis, too.
People are already talking about what will come. His Holiness’ choice of vestments, his use of simpler transportation, his affability and approachability all are taken as portents of things to yet unseen. It is a hopeful prospect, really. But, we ought to view it in its context. What has allowed us to get to the point that we are ready for what we hope His Holiness will bring? Though we could easily go back further, it will suffice to speak of Bl. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. What did they do for Pope Francis? It seems to me that the lasting legacies are these: Pope John Paul asserted the universal accessibility of the Bishop of Rome; Pope Benedict taught humbly that unity with the Bishop of Rome is an essential part of the message of Jesus Christ. The Holy Father is not an Italian in a far-off land. He is someone close to us, someone to whom we listen, a visible sign of unity.
The Church faces some very dire problems today. They are not necessarily more or less dire than at other times. We are not in the midst of a World War or the Black Plague. But, there are still parts of the world were the Church is openly persecuted, especially in Africa and Asia. The Church also has some very fine strengths today. Catholics in the West are incredibly wealthy. Bishops around the world are true pastors. Lay formation is growing by leaps and bounds. Seminarians and religious houses are undergoing great renewal. If Pope Francis can put those strengths to good use, he may be able to bring faith, hope and charity to places in great need of them. In short, perhaps he will be able to help us all to remember the Scripture, when it says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.” (Heb 13:3)
I was asked to contribute to this blog on account of my being in Rome at the time of a conclave. As that time now passes, I think that there is one more point worth reflecting on, namely, the indefectibility of the Church. St. Augustine says in his “Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed”:
It follows after commendation of the Trinity, The Holy Church. God is pointed out, and His temple. For the temple of God is holy, says the Apostle, which (temple) are you. This same is the holy Church, the one Church, the true Church, the catholic Church, fighting against all heresies: fight, it can: be fought down, it cannot. As for heresies, they went all out of it, like as unprofitable branches pruned from the vine: but itself abides in its root, in its Vine, in its charity. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
The Church is here to stay. But, as I look around Rome, so much of the Church has come and gone. The Mystical Body of Christ remains. The Truth remains, in its fullness. But, the institutional facets of the Church—essential as they are—change and shift in time. At one time, all of Rome was the dominion of the Holy Father. Above buildings are crests of the Holy See, of individual cardinals or different offices of the Roman Curia. Where princes of the Church once slept, there are bank tellers or chefs in restaurant kitchens. These things change. If it is true that Pope Francis will bring simplicity back to the Church, that he will ask her to be materially poorer, things may shift more. I do not mean that the Vatican will cease to be the Vatican or that the hierarchy of the Church ought to be demolished—not at all. I simply mean that of those who live comfortable lives—churchmen or laymen—the Holy Father may ask a simpler way of living.
The saints who stand above St. Peter’s Square have seen so many different ages in the Church, as the come and go. It is exciting to think how this age may look years from now. Habemus Papam!