By: William C. Mattison
More than two months since Pope Francis was elected to the papacy, the settling of the initial media buzz invites some analysis of how that election has been received in general, and especially among Catholics. American Church politics offers one milieu in which to see different and similar dynamics beyond the U.S.
One of the most important observations on the reaction to this election is the overwhelmingly positive reception Francis has received. There are of course the novelties: first Latin American pope, first Jesuit pope, and first Francis. There are the scrutinized gestures of his first minutes, including his self-identification as Bishop of Rome, his choice of transportation, and his request of the faithful to pray for him. Finally there is a remarkable simplicity, humility, and solidarity with the poor.
Pope Francis has received an enormous amount of good press. I sense a certain hospitality in this response, a welcoming hopefulness for someone in a new position, akin to what Americans refer to as the “honeymoon” of a new presidency. In a society and media where the controversial and unseemly garners the news, this reception is good news indeed.
Even in this warm reception, there are reasons for caution. One reason may be the tendency to think something to the effect of: the new pope will finally change the Church into what I know it should be! For example, over the course of one day I had two noteworthy encounters concerning the election. The first with a friend and colleague telling me that “The election of Francis is a repudiation of Benedict’s papacy.” My more left-leaning friend was naively confident that, with Francis, things have been changed for the better and unalterably in a matter of weeks. The second, in talking to a more right-leaning loved one, I was directed to George Weigel’s "The Humble Pope: Catholic Reform Through Evangelical Purification" (The National Review, April 8). There Weigel described a reform infused with an Ignatian humility that avoids some of the post Vatican II errors which, he claims, were wholeheartedly embraced by the Jesuits. Here people are reading the meaning of Francis’ election in diametrically opposed ways, united only by their common affirmation that the new pope “will finally change the Church into what I know it should be!”. Such mutually exclusive responses are found also in relation to Francis and liberation theology: some regard his conspicuous lack of endorsement of liberation theology as a distancing from, while others see his consistent advocacy on behalf of the poor as a friend of the movement.
Only time will tell what sort of papacy Francis will have. However, the ease with which people have commandeered him should give us pause, suggesting the embrace has more to do with their own agenda for the Church than with Francis himself. And this warm hospitality can easily slip into idolatrous messianic hope. If the first caution is a matter of corralling a new papacy in service to a political agenda, the second is an overinflated expectation that this papacy can set all things anew. Surely we should not underestimate the extent to which papacies --such as those of John XXIII and John Paul II--can galvanize the Church. However, Americans are particularly aware of how messianic hope is attached to a leader; consider, for example, the expectations put upon Barack Obama, the nation’s first president of African American descent. Ultimately, these hopes present a disservice to the person and the community. Of course the Church is not merely a political organ, nonetheless, we are well served to heed Pope Francis’ own reminder in the opening days of his pontificate, when (on March 16) he addressed an audience of journalists in the midst of the media fascination with his election and reminded them that “Christ remains the center, not the Successor of Peter not the Pontiff.”
In these days at the end of May as I write, the Church hears Jesus continually reminding the disciples that his path leads to the Cross (Mark 9 and 10). In their arguing about who is greatest and their jockeying for political positions, the disciples repeatedly miss Jesus’ predictions of his passion and, ironically, his resurrection. In reflection on the Gospel, Pope Francis has emphasized that a Christianity or a discipleship without the cross is a mere cultural [or political] Christianity. As we rightly enjoy the luster of the exciting new papacy, and rightly hope that Francis will be a powerful instrument of the Holy Spirit in his pontificate, let’s also join him in keeping the focus in and on Christ.