Reading the Franciscan Tea Leaves

Story Stream
recent articles

Having written my first book on the papacy in light of Eastern Orthodox thought, it was a point of small, admittedly geeky, pride that I seem to have been one of few people -- amidst the crushing mass of commentar -- to have picked up a hugely significant phrase used by the new pope.

In his second paragraph from the loggia last Wednesday, Pope Francis quietly and without explicit reference quoted one of the oldest phrases extant to describe the Church of Rome as being the one "which presides in charity over all the Churches." This phrase goes back to Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest fathers of the Church who died somewhere around the turn of the second century.

Used in Ignatius's Letter to the Romans, it describes a vision of church relations quite different from recent Roman practice, but the quoting of this phrase, along with other gestures by the new pope, would seem to suggest that his vision is indeed quite different, and wholly welcome, especially to Orthodox Christians for whom an overly exalted and far-reaching papacy remains the last significant hurdle to Orthodox-Catholic unity.

Let us consider just a few signs:

In his inaugural address from the loggia, he never once used the words "pope" or "pontiff" or their cognates. (There is nothing wrong with either term: pope comes from the Greek for "father" and "pontiff" in Latin means bridge-builder.) Instead he consistently referred to Rome now having a bishop again. This is extremely significant because of the many titles he holds, "bishop of Rome" is not only the oldest but also the most important without which nothing else is possible. Being made a bishop requires a sacrament, which is very serious; being made pope requires no sacrament and nothing more than a simple election which adds nothing to a man's sacramental character; the pope is not a "super-bishop."

The program for his installation Mass having been released, we can already see several significant factors that confirm for us Francis's early understanding of his ministry. He is downplaying the event by simply using the pre-existing prayers and readings for the feast of the day, St. Joseph, celebrated every year in the Roman calendar on March 19th. In addition, he is having the gospel proclaimed only in Greek rather than Latin as well, indicating that there is already enough Latin in the rest of the liturgy. This will be noticed by the Greek Orthodox delegation, headed by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who is making history by being the first to attend a papal inauguration-along with numerous other Orthodox leaders. Francis' inauguration, moreover, is also involving the Eastern Catholic patriarchs in an unprecedented way at the outset, and thereby sending a clear signal that Francis, too, is a patriarch like them, a sign that can only greatly cheer Eastern Catholic and Orthodox hearts alike.

Much has already been made of the name, but one point has often been overlooked: St. Francis of Assisi was never a hierarch, nor even a priest, remaining instead a simple deacon. The word "deacon" comes from the Greek for service. Though the etymology is capable of several meanings, it is often construed to mean "service" as in "table-service"-a very humble job indeed. I'm not suggesting the new pope is going to moonlight as a busboy at a Roman trattoria, but together with these other signs, his overall message is clearly that of Jesus the foot-washer: "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22:25-27).

We've already heard too much chatter about the new pope's shoe color and his shunning some of the "traditional" vestments for his first appearance. These are not serious matters, but they are of a piece with what we have seen of his character to date. While I applaud the gestures and the intent, they give me unease only insofar as they give cheer to those iconoclasts who think that beauty is bad. This lot would condemn us all to celebrating communion using the latest in 1960s pottery on an overturned canoe on a beach or upended rubbish bin in an alley. As I have often remarked to these types, there is a vast difference between simplicity and ostentatious (and usually sanctimonious) meanness. At the Last Supper, Jesus didn't host a self-serve buffet of gruel for his disciples eaten off plates made of recycled hemp.

Some of the above have been taken, gleefully and almost perversely by some (including those who should know better-e.g., the execrable Roger Mahony, thankfully ex-archbishop of Los Angeles who belongs in a monastery on a deserted island for his handling of sexual abuse cases) to indicate that Francis is tacitly repudiating Benedict's liturgical "style." Nonsense. He is if anything building on and extending what Benedict did. Consider briefly three things.

First, the pallium with which he is being invested is reported to be the same pallium used by Benedict, in a design that was clearly the Latin counterpart to the Greek or Byzantine omophorio -- thus a sign not only of papal continuity, but again of outreach to the Orthodox.

Second, again the extensive and unprecedented involvement of the patriarchs in Francis' inauguration -- both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox. Benedict started writing about the importance of seeing the bishop of Rome as an equal to the patriarchs in the late 1960s, a trajectory in the theological literature he single-handedly started and would emphasis again and again over the following four decades right through his own papacy.

Third and finally, the fact that Benedict resigned was a welcome blow to the "mythology" of the papacy, and in less than a week Francis has repeatedly extended that "demythologization" in the ways noted above. The resignation, through sheer shock-value alone, impressed on people that perhaps they have placed excessive emphasis on the papacy, which is simply an office for ecclesiastical administration and not some kind of demiurge.

The pope is a man like any other man, and if he is getting old and tired, as all of us will if we make it to our mid-80s, he should be able to step down for the good of the Church. As I put it a month ago to worried friends, every other Catholic bishop in the world is expected to retire at 75-why should the bishop of Rome, that most venerable of titles clearly preferred by its newest incumbent, be any different?

Show comments Hide Comments