Thursday, March 14, 2013

The New Pope Francis I

(NOTE: I have not been adding posts here for some time because of a switch in responsibilities. However, those who wish to "catch up" may do so through the reflections that I have been including in my weekly contribution to the SJI International, Singapore, newsletters. They are at the very end of the newsletter, usually. Link is HERE.)

The occasion of the election of a new pope permits a more general reflection about the Church. This is a time when many people around the world, especially Catholics, are polishing their hope and refreshing their faith, all based on the choice of one 76-year-old Argentinian bishop (of Rome). It’s probably true to say that never has so much hope been placed upon so few – namely, one – by so many.

Perhaps it’s the drama of the whole thing. The lofty space of Saint Peter’s Basilica (in Rome, of all places), the music and processions, the Michelangelo frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the technological scrutiny of preventing electronic eaves-dropping (not a tweet from inside), the one-man-one-vote system in place since the beginning, the quaint practice of burning the ballots and having white or black smoke as an early-warning system, the spectacle of 70,000 faithful gathered in the square to greet, en masse, a small, humble, be-speckled, and rather calm figure in white on a balcony, surrounded by red-draped cardinals happily smiling because they dodged a life-long bullet, and the millions watching on the internet or the television and wondering what this will mean for themselves, if anything.

The pope’s election has become a worldwide theatrical event, perhaps because it marks a rather simple and profound reality; i.e., that a little group of followers from Palestine who came to know God in Jesus have persisted and grown, undiminished and unperturbed – although frequently and justifiably as candidates for immediate dismissal and abandonment – for over 2000 years. Something interesting is going on here. I don’t know of any other group in history that marks such a direct line of succession within a continuous and unbroken organizational framework. The miracle is that it has survived at all.

The fact that this Pope Francis I is a Jesuit is another unexpected aspect of this selection. The Jesuits were founded to do as the pope wished for the good of the church. They eventually became so powerful that the head of the Jesuits was popularly called the “black pope” because of the black cassock that he wore, in contrast to the white cassock that the pope has worn ever since the time that there was a Dominican pope, and for the power that he wielded in all the corners of the earth. Now we have a “black pope” representative who has become the white pope (and notice how simple Pope Francis looked in white, without all the ornate garments available to him). The whole thing will probably bring a boost in Jesuit vocations, and St. Ignatius of Loyola must be thinking in heaven, “Well would you look at that?”

But back on the ground, it may be helpful to share a fine quotation from Ronald Rolheiser about the church that keeps us grounded. He writes in The Holy Longing: “To be connected with the church is to be associated with scoundrels, warmongers, fakes… and hypocrites of every description. It also, at the same time, identifies you with saints and the finest persons of heroic soul within every time, country, race, and gender. To be a member of the church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest heroism of soul … because the church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion, God hung among thieves.” (Pg. 128)

That’s a good thought as we enter into the Easter Season and the start of a new papacy. Despite the difficulties and challenges that surround us, God remains in the middle.