With a timing so beautifully poetic that only the Holy Spirit could dream it up, Catholics around the world will hear God's words this Sunday from Isaiah 43: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to perceive the new thing the Holy Spirit did in selecting Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new pope. If nothing else this proves the Holy Spirit exists because, in obeying Him, the cardinals who elected Bergoglio went way outside the box – way outside the norms of action for the Catholic hierarchy.
So, what are we left with? Suspense! If you think the suspense is over now that we have a new pope, think again. This storyline contains an abundance of suspense that will play itself out over the next few weeks and months. It's better than an Agatha Christie novel. And suspense is how the Holy Spirit holds our attention.
The suspense has nothing to do with whether Pope Francis I will allow women priests or loosen the rules on abortion or contraception. Don't even go there; it's a waste of time. I'm talking about the suspense of waiting to see how he makes Jesus Christ relevant again in a world that has turned a cold shoulder to faith.
The talking heads whose voices now fill the airwaves focus mostly on what the pope might do. Yes, he can do all kinds of things within the institution. He can clean house at the Vatican, especially the Curia (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. president's cabinet). He can clean up the mess at the Vatican Bank. He can come down like a ton of bricks on pedophile priests and the bishops who protected them. He can make forceful, thought-and-heart-provoking statements that clarify basic Christian teaching. He can take a firm hand by insisting that bishops strictly adhere to church teaching – i.e., no more “interpretation.” And he would be applauded for doing any or all of that.
But the talking heads missed the point. What the new pope does is not nearly as important as who Francis is and will be. His namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, became one of the church's greatest saints because he saw that the church wasn't meant to teach about Jesus but to reveal Him to the world. “By all means preach the Gospel,” he said. “Even use words when necessary.”
If Pope Francis I really wants to be like his namesake he also must find ways to reveal Jesus to His flock – not just 1.2 billion Catholics but also the roughly 7 billion non-Catholic observers.
From what little I understand about the former Cardinal Bergoglio, he tried his best to be a truly humble man as archbishop of Buenos Aires. He forsook the archbishop's mansion for a small apartment, rode the bus to work every day and cooked his own meals. Yes, that sounds like a man taking after St. Francis.
But being pope is different from being an archbishop. A pope doesn't have a choice about whether to cook his own meals. Someone else will do it for him (although, popes being popes, if he really insisted on whipping up scrambled eggs or steak au poivre, the kitchen staff couldn't very well say no). He also doesn't have a choice about taking the bus because he lives where he works. And now he lives in the midst of luxury, not some second-floor flat. In short, he won't have these small opportunities to connect with, and relate to, his flock.
Francis will have to find new ways to connect with, and then display, the humility of Christ. That's where the suspense begins. How will he do it? Will he stroll down Rome's streets (reminiscent of the fictional Pope Kiril in the book and film “Shoes of the Fisherman”), perhaps stopping at a local gelato shop for two scoops of chocolate while chatting with the other customers? Will he celebrate Mass in one of that city's poorest neighborhoods, offering the Eucharist to those who may not have enough to eat? Will he travel to distant lands and reach out to those who consider him strange, or a cult figure, but who don't “get” the Jesus he preaches?
To understand the suspense from this vantage point, you first need to understand something about the Catholic priesthood – something that may be very unsettling to those on the outside, and even to many who think they are on the inside. I once attended a seminary Mass, during which the president-rector described the role of a priest. “With you, I am Christian. For you I am Christ.” That sounds unbelievably cheeky at first blush, but a priest is ordained to act “in persona Christi,” a Latin phrase that means “in the person of Christ.”
Priests aren't in the top echelon within church hierarchy. That level is reserved for those among them who become bishops – the ones elevated to the level of teaching and governing authority. But in one regard the most freshly ordained priest is equal to the pope, because all priests share in the ordained responsibility to act “in persona Christi.” That requirement never goes away, no matter how high up on the feeding chain you get.
The suspense comes in wondering how Pope Francis I will fulfill that mandate with all the eyes of the world on him. How will he reflect Jesus Christ in a flesh-and-blood way to a world that could sure use Him right now?
There is a second, closely related and equally crucial fact to remember. For roughly a thousand years the Catholic Church basically taught that because priests act “in persona Christi,” they had a higher, more meaningful spirituality than did mere parishioners, and thus were more favored by God.
In the 13th Century St. Thomas Aquinas argued there is no difference between priestly and lay spirituality, in part because lay spirituality is the environment in which men hear God's call to be priests. Aquinas' teaching on this subject, among many others, now constitutes the bulwark of modern Catholic thinking. The only problem is that it doesn't necessarily reflect on-the-ground reality.
Even to this day some priests and bishops act as if they are entitled to special privileges or exemptions because of their calling. If you want proof just ask Catholics (or, even better, former Catholics) if they ever had to deal with a holier-than-thou, “my way or the highway” pastor.
The suspense that hangs in the air with Pope Francis I is in wondering whether he will be the kind of priest that Jesus was, and that his namesake exemplified, or if he will turn out to be just be another priest who acts in the same way that too many priests have acted throughout the ages – disconnected from the people they are meant to serve because they are basically disconnected from God. It would be a terrible tragedy for the pope to give us more of the same old same-old. One reason why so many people disregard, challenge or reject papal teachings is their belief that the teacher is a hypocrite.
But we have no reason to fear such an odious outcome. Last week the Holy Spirit began to prepare Catholics for the new thing He is doing. The readings included this part of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold the new things have come.”
If Francis has come to the papacy as the new model for a genuinely humble, honest, transparent priesthood it will unquestionably be the most important change that he could ever impart on the Catholic Church because modeling that kind of behavior will force all of his fellow priests – and ultimately the laity! - to choose between emulating him or opposing him. And emulating him really would make the church astoundingly new.