March 7, 2014

Pope Francis: The First Year

Vidaurrazaga, Sydnor, Leclerc, Hines and Johnston

On the afternoon of March 4th, the full-time faculty of the Theology + Religious Studies department offered a reflection and panel discussion on the tenure of Pope Francis, who will observe his first year in office on March 13, 2014.

At the start of the discussion, Associate Professor and Department Chair Fr. Thomas Leclerc, M.S. noted that no such retrospectives took place at Benedict XVI's one-year mark in 2006.

So, what is it about Pope Francis?

Assistant Professor of Theology + Religious Studies Laurie Johnston, who presented "The First Year in Images," opened with the photograph of the newly-elected pontiff on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, wearing a simple white cassock and bowing before the crowd of thousands in the Square, asking for their blessing and greeting them with a congenial "Buona sera."

"It became clear that this is a different kind of pope, almost immediately," Johnston said.

The former Argentinean cardinal, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became the first Pope from Latin America, the first from the Western world and the first Jesuit. In the hours after the conclave, he was photographed riding the bus with the other cardinals and settling his own hotel bill at the Casa del Clero.

He was also the first to choose the name of Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, who devoted himself to a life of poverty. In contrast to the Popes before him, Pope Francis chose not to move into the Papal Apartments of the Apostolic Palace, but to reside in a two-room suite at Vatican guest house and conclave site Casa Santa Marta, where he eats communal meals and says morning mass.

For his reputation as "The People's Pope," he was voted Time magazine's person of the year for 2013 and appeared on the February 13, 2014, cover of Rolling Stone next to the heading, "The Times They are A-Changin'." Under the handle @Pontifex, Pope Francis has nearly four million Twitter followers and, in August 2013, posed for the first ever "papal selfie" with young visitors to the Vatican.

Fr. Leclerc, in his talk, addressed whether the Pope's actions and his impact on the way the papacy is perceived in his first year were merely a shift in form or if they signaled a significant change in substance. He referred to John Carr's America article, "100 Days of Francis," saying, "Symbols are substance in a sacramental church," and that Pope Francis's approach to serving is more "a bishop among bishops" rather than a supreme power.

Beyond symbolism, Pope Francis has made changes in governance. One month after his election, he appointed a group of eight cardinals, from such diverse locations as Chile, India, Germany, DR Congo, the United States, Australia, Honduras and Rome to serve as his advisors in governing the universal church. He also appointed a commission to reform the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank, replacing four of the five cardinals who oversee the Bank and assigning a secular, third-party consulting firm to investigate. His suspension of the Bishop of Limberg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst (the "Bishop of Bling") after a $42 million renovation to his residence, made it clear that he expects his bishops to set an example for a humbler, more austere lifestyle.

On February 22, 2014, Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals, including nine from South America, Africa and Asia, which represent some of the poorest countries and reflect the realities of the worldwide Catholic population.

While Pope Francis has gained a lot of media attention in the last year, less is known about Bergoglio and his journey from Jesuit priest to Cardinal and eventually, Bishop of Rome.

Assistant Professor of Theology + Religious Studies Jaime Vidaurrazaga discussed "The Conversion of Pope Francis: From Argentina to Rome," citing what he considers the three key periods that transformed Bergoglio into the Pope he would eventually become.

From 1986-1992, Bergoglio was assigned to serve as spiritual director to the Jesuit community in Córdoba, second largest city in Argentina. Nearly 500 miles from Buenos Aires, the 50-year-old's career as a Jesuit was stalled, due in part to his refusal to support the "liberation theology" promoted by some Jesuits. This period was difficult both politically and economically in Argentina, and Bergoglio was seen as both an outsider and as someone too close to power.

In 1992, Bergoglio was named Auxiliary Bishop of Argentina, rescuing him from exile in Cordóba. In Buenos Aires, he began ministering to residents in the slums, beginning his transformation as a champion of the poor.

In 1998, after Cardinal Antonio Quarracino's death, Bergoglio was named Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  In this role, he began to create new parishes and restructure the administrative offices of the archdiocese. His work for social justice flourished and the church's presence in the slums reached its highest level--characteristics he has reportedly carried over to the papacy, amid rumors he leaves Vatican City at night to visit with Rome's homeless.

Professor of Theology + Religious Studies Mary Hines was the panel's sole critic of Pope Francis's tenure so far-not because of anything he has done, but in what he has yet to do on behalf of women and other marginalized groups in the church.

Hines said that after Vatican II closed in 1965, "women got the crazy idea that they might be involved," but that nearly 50 years later, "the door to ordination has remained firmly closed to women."

While she maintained that allowing women to be ordained would not have been his smartest move in his first year, she said that the Pope's ambiguous and contradictory views on womenare hopeful.

Hines cited the Pope's Evangelii Gaudium, where he refers to the "feminine genius," creating a precariously romantic and idealistic view of women. He wrote that the church has always benefitted from women's unique skill sets, including sensitivity and intuition, "which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood."

However, in the same communication, Pope Francis supports that "the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity."

Associate Professor of Theology + Religion Jon Paul Sydnor took a more humorous approach, acting as a "media consultant" and juxtaposing Pope Francis with another "rock star of religion," the Dalai Lama, wondering, "What is their appeal?"

While the Pope's renown is understandable, considering he leads a global population of 1.2 billion Catholics, the popularity of the leader of a relatively small group of Tibetan Buddhists is more of a mystery. Sydnor laid out the 10 characteristics that both of these leaders possess, including compassion, accessibility, a lack of pretentiousness and a genuine love of children.

"Those are the easy ones," Sydnor said.

Religious leaders must provide interreligious hope, depicting religions not as tribes, but as a ways and means to love others, an air of simplicity, faith, a commitment to service and raw charisma.

Sydnor also described a religious leader's need to cross boundaries, referring to Cardinal Bergoglio riding on Argentina's subway and choosing to say his first Holy Thursday Mass as Pope Francis in a prison, washing the feet of both women and Muslims, rather than at the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.

 

Cover image by Tânia Rêgo/ABr (Agência Brasil) [CC-BY-3.0-br], via Wikimedia Commons