Pope Francis: continuity at five years and counting

Four reasons why the current Successor of Saint Peter, like his predecessor, cannot be constrained by ideological worldviews

Five years ago today, we in the Church and the world met our new Vicar of Christ. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected as the Successor of Saint Peter, succeeding Benedict XVI, who had abdicated his authority because of age and health, and as a historic teaching opportunity about the pontificate.

Cardinal Bergoglio took the name Francis and immediately began shaking things up—(mostly) delighting the ideological left and (often) frustrating the right.

But when you look clearly at Pope Francis’s place in the life of the Church, you see something ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum are missing: an “interior continuity” with his predecessor, as noted recently by that predecessor himself.

In May 2013, just a few months after Pope Francis took to the Chair of Saint Peter, I had written for Catholic World Report about this continuity because even then there were signs of growing division within in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Satan, no doubt, was using recent events to confuse the faithful, as well as to instill fear into some and pride into others—the sin of despair and the sin of presumption—and I felt it necessary to show the unified vision of both pontiffs.

More so, I wanted to write that analysis for my own good. I, too, was (and still remain) both delighted by some action or statement of the Holy Father and distraught by others.

Today, on the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis's election, there remains much work ahead to understand this pontiff and, more importantly, to understand him in light of the whole, not merely as a rupture with what has gone before—for good or for ill, depending on who you listen to. Too often, the loudest critics and the most frenzied fans of Pope Francis focus too much on today, or on their own often politically parochial views.

What’s needed is a wider vision—a Catholic one.

And so here are four points to remember—and share—on this, the five-year celebration of the election of Pope Francis.

The Church is always in tension between seemingly opposing realities

Think about these truths: One God, three persons. Jesus Christ, both human and divine. A loving, all-powerful God, who allows evil. The Church, a home for sinners and saints.

From early on, the followers of Jesus Christ had to reconcile statements that human instinct tells us are irreconcilable. We had to learn to forego binary logic. Something could be both A and B, and at the same time, neither. (Interestingly, it would take centuries before today's science caught up with this way of thinking—learning, for instance, that light is both a wave and a particle.)

In other words, a truly Catholic worldview is comfortable with the more interior, scholarly style that we often attribute to Benedict XVI and the more exterior, active one that we often see in Pope Francis. The trick is seeing both in both. That is, after all, the Catholic way of seeing and thinking—and loving.

Someday there will be a successor to Pope Francis. His priorities and styles may very likely be very different. Rather than cheer or bemoan those differences, we need to always keep a wider vision

And the reality is that there was and is both an active and an interior reality to both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. We merely need eyes to see what is unfolding before us—a vision unclouded by the agendas of others.

Never get distracted by the “flavor of the month”

Not long after the election of Pope Francis, a theologian I respect was musing with others at a summer cookout. He dismissed the furor by the right (and the elation of the left) as getting too caught up in the here and now. Of not having a bigger vision of God’s activity in human history.

This should comfort those worried that Francis is attempting to drag the Church into heresy. And it should be a reminder to those who feel Francis has liberated us all from those dark ages of years past.

Someday there will be a successor to Pope Francis. His priorities and styles may very likely be very different. Rather than cheer or bemoan those differences, we need to always keep a wider vision—one that sees a Unity at work among the imperfections and sins of mankind, offering to elevate us all into the life of the Trinity.

No pope is perfect

My graduate advisor and I were meeting one day discussing my thesis on Benedict XVI. I was, as is my way, being rather critical of some of Benedict's critics. My advisor looked at me and said, “Bill, no pope is perfect.”

Outside of those rare and technical occasions when a Successor of Saint Peter speaks infallibly—without error—popes can say and do things that they probably shouldn’t. They’re only human, after all. And so let God use their broken human nature as he will, and be open and forgiving in those times when the fragility and, yes, even sin of the man in Peter’s chair comes through.

Unity is necessary if we are to protect creation

Finally, because this is my Catholic Ecology blog, a word on creation. Let us remember that the current ecological destruction we’re wreaking on Earth is the global implication of sin—humanity’s sin as a whole and our individual ones. The primary mission of the Church is to save souls. We do that by preaching the gospel and doing our part to channel into the world God’s grace—and thus his joy, justice, mercy, and love.

We cannot forget that the first step in saving the world is to turn to God—to be transformed by his grace—and then to go and busy ourselves with what needs to be done.

Our actions alone are often fragile or even meaningless—and potentially dangerous—without first being elevated by grace.

After all, it is grace that elevates nature.

This cannot be forgotten. What worries me is that the most zealous supporters of Pope Francis are making the same mistake that some of Benedict XVI’s supporters made. They only see half the equation.

We cannot forget that the first step in saving the world is to turn to God—to be transformed by his grace—and then to go and busy ourselves with what needs to be done. Focusing only on the social ministries of the Church without putting God, the sacraments, and the liturgy first is a recipe for personal and global disaster.

This was the dramatic message of Laudato Si’, and it remains the loud message of Pope Francis—as it did with a different voice for Benedict XVI, and Saint John Paul II before him, and on, and on, and on.

And so let me conclude with my conclusion from my 2013 analysis on these two brother popes:

In his doctoral study of St. Bonaventure, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger concluded that a Church that seeks peace in the future is “obliged to love in the present.” Throughout his pastoral and academic career, Joseph Ratzinger taught and lived this loving in the present—mindful always that to do so requires God’s grace, especially that which comes to us in the Eucharistic.

Pope Francis—who begins his days celebrating Mass with the community in which he lives—has also brought to life this loving in the present: He does so by dramatically emphasizing the external reach of the Church in the liturgies of everyday life even if he does prefer simpler liturgies of the altar (which seems fitting given that, as a Jesuit, he has taken a vow of poverty). These differences are not a break in pontifical teachings nor do they snub Benedict XVI. Rather, they give witness to true apostolic continuity—to the different gifts of the same Spirit—whenever Pope Francis instinctively lives out his older brother’s call to first experience the grace of God and then joyfully offer it to everyone else.

May God bless and protect Pope Francis, and may all Catholics see him, and all things, with the eyes of unity and love.

And so that we can grow in unity, let us pray . . .

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls and the destruction of the Church. Amen.

And now, onward and upward, together, in Christ!

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.