Pope Francis, servant-leader

Dean Tony La Viña

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Many voices are calling for Francis to lead a sea change in the affairs of the Catholic Church. In a way, it’s a tide long coming.

Dean Tony La ViñaHis Holiness Francis—prior to this, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio—will certainly be marked in history for a number of firsts: first Pope from the global South; first non-European since the 700’s; first from the Americas; first Jesuit to become Pope. He has seemingly come out of left field for Vatican observers (and Las Vegas bet takers, it seems), who press reports say haven’t even considered him a strong contender to succeed Benedict XVI. In hindsight, even in irony, Cardinal Bergoglio was considered one of the papabili to succeed Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, and there are previous press reports in 2005 that cited he was neck-and-neck with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger until Bergoglio asked fellow cardinals to not vote for him.

If the present press and some critics had weighed the Argentine Cardinal and found him wanting, those who knew him could cite striking virtues. We have all heard the stories by now: the Cardinal who refused the reserved car in favor of commuting via the bus; who would walk the slums of Buenos Aires and break bread with recovering drug addicts and AIDS sufferers. Much has been said of Francis’ humility, hoping that it would signal new hope for the Catholic Church. Many voices are calling for Francis to lead a sea change in the affairs of the Catholic Church. In a way, it’s a tide long coming. We have often heard of the challenges Rome faces from the rest of the world today: declining faith in the West and evangelical/missionary competition elsewhere, clerical sex abuses, a byzantine, even fractious Vatican bureaucracy. Many voices demand a strong hand to clear out the air in the Vatican, sweep away the proverbial filth. Some cite Francis’ humility as a positive factor: in particular as a good example and standard to other priests, and especially those in high positions (considering that bureaucracy, and the fallout from the sex scandal). Even so humble, when necessary Cardinal Bergoglio had not hesitated to crack the whip on priests in his jurisdiction, whom he deduced had erred.

A global South/non-European/New World pope would also bring new perspectives and much-needed attention to socio-economic issues, Francis’ supporters say. Bergoglio had spoken out against crippling poverty—as he could easily see in his ventures and outreach to the Argentinian slums. His papacy is expected to direct greater Church attention and resources to the needs of the poor; his papal name honoring the humble and generous St. Francis of Assisi being but one indicator. Others have spoken of such a revolutionary change within the Church, but perhaps from a Catholic perspective I would also describe it as continuity. On that note secular press reports note how Cardinal Bergoglio’s conservative positions on gender, marriage, abortion and contraception would hint that Francis’ papacy won’t deviate from previous Church doctrine. AsI have written before, whether on issues of gender and sex, or poverty and economics, or peace and justice, the untiring message of the Church has been about love, for God and for fellow persons. What Francis’ expectedly austere papacy would do is to sharpen that message in the light (and dark) of modern temptations and post-modern skepticisms. The Pope said as much: “if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church.” 

Thus the papacy of Francis also becomes a logical extension and constructive expansion of the same themes that have graced Benedict XVI and John Paul II’s papacies—arguably, through the entire line of Popes through the ages, whether they were admired or reviled for their personal qualities. We could also note that the same hallmarks that have graced the new Pope’s service to the Church also grace one of the more favored papabili, or very own Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle: public transportation, humble food, criticisms of economic inequalities and contemporary sensibilities, the message of humility and God’s love: continuity in the face of history’s changing tides, or the differences across political and ethnic borders. My temptation in writing this column is to reach for the well-worn, aphorism, “The more things change, the more things stay the same,” but it wouldn’t capture what should be said about Francis’ assumption of the chair of St. Peter. It wouldn’t do justice to its implications. No, perhaps citing 1 Corinthians would be more appropriate: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”

Jorge Mario Bergoglio isn’t the “come-from-behind” papal candidate that initial press reports and a surface impression paint him to be. In the secular view, he may have been the best compromise among the debating personalities and groups within the College of Cardinals—but the Catholic Church was never one for secularism. Above anything else, and looking at his life’s work, Pope Francis is a continuation of what makes Catholicism beautiful, a servant-leader in the lineage of St. Peter and his successors who bear witness to God’s “foolishness”, which is Love (so deep that His only Son would die for us). To return home after such lofty recollections, we Filipinos can only pray that, with our own elections a couple of months away, that this “foolishness” of Love will also grace our votes. God knows our country also needs such servant-leaders as our new Pope. – Rappler.com

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