Church reform depends on us as much as on the pope
Pope Francis can empower the church to exit from culture of silence and deference
Jorge Mario Bergoglio attends his first private Mass as Pope Francis in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome yesterday. Photograph: Servizio Fotografico L'Osservatore Romano/Getty Images
Like most people and, I suspect, most Jesuits, I was surprised on Wednesday evening last to learn that the cardinals had elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy. What might we hope for from his time as pope?
It helps that the man has a sense of humour. It is reported that he left the cardinals to go out on to the balcony to greet the crowds by saying “May God forgive you all!” And on the balcony he began by noting that the cardinals had gone almost to “the end of the world” to elect the new Bishop of Rome, and ended by wishing all a “good night, have a good rest”, as if talking to familiars. He came across as someone with simplicity, a prayerful man of faith and warmth. This has since been confirmed by what we have learned about his lifestyle. All this conveys a person of substance and yet one with a light touch.
We have learned too about his deep commitment to the poor and to social justice. This is good news for so many. And perhaps the taking of the name Francis may mean care of the environment is included in his notion of social justice?
He will have learned from his Jesuit background, as from many other sources, that justice certainly involves a real compassion and care for individuals who are suffering, but also the struggle to reform structures and institutions. Perhaps in this context he will be better able to convey to victims of clerical sexual abuse that the church is truly sorry, and that effective remedial means have been taken and will be taken. And with his Ignatian background of “finding God in all things” he may well have interesting ways of addressing secularisation.
So far, perhaps so obvious – and encouraging.
I was struck by two other aspects of his short address to the crowd.
First, he several times referred to his new role as Bishop of Rome – not pope, not Supreme Pontiff. I would suggest that this was not accidental. I am supposing that he wanted to locate himself among, and not apart from, his fellow cardinals and bishops. This is of huge significance: could we be seeing here the first concrete steps towards a re-imagining of the papacy in a more collegial manner, true to the inspiration of the Second Vatican Council? The days of absolute monarchy should be well and truly over.
Pope John Paul II suggested as much when, in 1995 in Ut Unum Sint , he asked for help in re-envisaging the papacy so that it could better serve its function as a service of unity and love.
In the same vein, it was fascinating that before giving his Urbi et Orbi blessing to the assembled crowd and to the world he paused and asked for their blessing, their prayer for him – and bowed in silence when receiving it. Here he was situating himself among the people of God – the description used by the Second Vatican Council to express the mystery of the church. The baptised first, then priests, bishops, pope in service of the people.
This is consistent with his reported criticism of “clericalism” while still in Argentina. And it takes up the teaching of Vatican II that the faithful share in the role of Jesus Christ as prophet (teacher), priest (the common priesthood of the faithful) and king (a share in decision-making). It respects the notion of the “sense of the faithful” as a source of church teaching.