Many of us do not remember what we were doing on a certain day ten years ago or for that matter even a year ago. Let’s face it, I might not even recall what I had for lunch yesterday! In fact, in my daily phone call to my Dad last night I had to stop and think what I was doing at lunchtime after he had asked me a related question.
Why all of this comes to mind is that on Monday, March 13, the Catholic Church celebrated the 10th anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, as the Bishop of Rome and the 266th Pope. In a rare moment, I can tell you where I was and how I learned of his election as Pope Francis. I was working out at a local gym where I was pastor when the facility’s manager tapped me on my shoulder and said, “Hey, Fr. Doug, we have a new Pope.” I remember being very excited because like many I was a little anxious after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI as Bishop of Rome wondering how all of this was supposed to work.
Two paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church which can help you and me to understand the significance of this event 10 years ago:
#880 — “When Christ instituted the Twelve, ‘he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them.’ Just as ‘by the Lord’s institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another.’”
#882 — “The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.’ For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”
It is important for us to understand that the office that the Pope (who inherits this title because he is the Bishop of Rome) and bishops are chosen for is a pastoral one. It is not about lording over others, but rather of being a source of communion (unity) and of service to the Church’s members, along with all people of goodwill. The Constitution on the Church from Vatican II, Lumen gentium, states: “In order to shepherd the People of God and to increase numbers without cease, Christ the Lord set up in his Church a variety of offices which aim at the good of the whole body. The holders of office, who are invested with sacred power, are, in fact, dedicated to promoting the interests of their brethren, so that all who belong to the People of God … may attain salvation” (#18).
Although Pope Francis has been a different kind of Pope than we are used to, especially in the granting of interviews and the sharing of his opinions, what I most admire about him is his dedication to the interests of all the People of God, especially those on the margins. Like the Samaritan woman, whose gospel was read this past Sunday, we see Pope Francis like Jesus reaching out to persons who are on the fringe of and even rejected by society.
Contrary to some popular opinion, I do not see the present Pope altering Church teaching. What I do observe is a pastoral leader inviting the Church together to announce the “Joy of the Gospel” which can draw others to Christ, especially the marginalized. If we read his words carefully, we don’t see someone saying don’t pay attention to God’s law (an accusation also made against Jesus by the religious leaders and the scholars of the law of his day), but rather challenging those who claim to be disciples not to stay in their comfort zones. Rather, we are invited to reach out like Jesus to where a person might be on the road of life and accompany them hope-fully to a deeper encounter with the presence of God.
This commission to all Christ’s faithful is found in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium — On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World. He writes: “In our world, ordained ministers and other pastoral workers can make present the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze. The Church will have to initiate everyone — priests, religious and laity — into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates, and encourages growth in the Christian life.”
If one reads of Pope Francis’ own spiritual journey, one discovers that the Conversion of Matthew, the Tax Collector (Mt 9:9-13), has a profound meaning for his life. Two key sentences which are Jesus’ own words are found in verse 13: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” I find these words engrained in the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis.
In my own life as a bishop, I can tell in what will be four years this year, I have done a lot of growing in my own understanding of discipleship and of being an evangelizer. I can only imagine what it must be like for Pope Francis. Therefore, I think it is important for us to heed St. Paul’s admonition to Timothy: “First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity” (1 Tm 2:1-2). Notice importantly that the prayers not only benefit the one prayed for, but the one praying as well!
Let me conclude then by offering my own prayer of thanksgiving for the life and ministry of Pope Francis — especially for the last ten years when under other circumstances he could have been living the life of a retired bishop away from the burdens of pastoral leadership — but also for the graces he needs to continue to respond to the Lord’s call in his life:
O God, shepherd and ruler of all the faithful, look favorably on your servant Francis, whom you have set at the head of your Church as her shepherd;
Grant, we pray, that by word and example he may be of service to those over whom he presides so that, together with the flock entrusted to his care, he may come to everlasting life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.