For the first time in a while, I'm feeling optimistic about the direction of the Catholic church's hierarchy in general and about the office of the papacy in particular. Many authors have written about the plethora of ways in which Pope Francis is hitting the "restart" button for a church so devastated by sexual and financial corruption.
Forgotten, however, is the fact that Pope Benedict XVI had to resign for this breath of fresh air to occur. The pope emeritus deserves recognition for his courageous and humble decision and action. Paradoxically, the conservative pope's nontraditional decision to resign has paved the way for the current pope to begin to mend the broken church structures that have allowed corruption to continue unchecked.
While the first months of Pope Francis’ pontificate have been marked by his attention to the poor and his “Who am I to judge” attitude on homosexuality, his pledge to tackle the ban on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics could have the biggest impact for Catholics in the pews, especially in the U.S.
The current policy has caused what some call a “silent schism,” and bishops around the world concede that the ban has alienated untold numbers of Catholics and their families.
“I think this is the moment for mercy,” Francis told reporters when asked about remarried Catholics during a wide-ranging news conference on the plane back to Rome from Brazil in July.
Like the gay issue, Francis seems to favor a more pastoral approach to the equally perplexing question of “invalid” marriages — couples who remarry outside the church without getting an annulment, or those who do not get married in church in the first place.
ROME — A spokeswoman for the National Security Agency denied reports from a leading Italian news magazine that U.S. spies may have listened in on conversations from inside the Vatican leading up to the March conclave that elected Pope Francis.
The newsweekly Panorama had reported in its Oct. 31 editions that the NSA tapped phones in the Santa Marta guesthouse where cardinals stayed before the conclave, as well as the cell phones of several cardinals, including Jorge Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis. The Panorama article did not identify its sources.
Reversals of power play through many stories and poems of Scripture. The sacred texts foundational to Jewish and Christian identity are insistent in their efforts to reconfigure our understanding of what counts as valuable and holy. Daring leaders in every age have responded with their own bold visions regarding what makes for faithful community — something we can see in the unusually humble ministry of the new Bishop of Rome. Pope Francis clearly knows his Scripture!
Featured prominently in Old Testament stories are flawed ancestors, unexpected heroes, surprising protagonists whose vital roles in the purposes of God reframe the community’s perspective on faith lived out in the paradoxes of history. The trickster who overcomes stronger antagonists (Jacob), the leader whose capacity for greatness develops from a compromised start (Moses), marginalized women whose very vulnerability becomes the source of their power (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth), the prophet whose witness is initially scorned but whose authority endures for generations (the Suffering Servant in Isaiah): such figures delight the reader seeking to understand how community should be deconstructed and rebuilt according to the purposes of God. In the New Testament, and particularly in Luke, we see sustained attention to those on the margins of social power: women, the poor, those with catastrophic illness. Christ himself surrenders his status and power (John 13:1-15; Philippians 2:5-11) in order to serve others in love. His abjection invites them, and us, into a new understanding of community.
They taught English, gym, music, and fifth grade, and are typically described as “beloved” by their students.
But that didn’t stop the Catholic schools where they worked from firing these teachers for their same-sex relationships, or, in one woman’s case, for admitting that she privately disagreed with church teaching on gay marriage.
A recent spate of sackings at Catholic institutions — about eight in the past two years — is wrenching for dioceses and Catholic schools, where some deem these decisions required and righteous, and others see them as unnecessary and prejudicial.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, and almost miraculously, the values of simplicity, humility, welcome, and the priority of the poor have burst on to the international stage. A new pope named Francis is reminding us that love is also a verb — choosing the name Francis because of his commitment to the poor, to peace, and creation in sharp contrast to the values of Washington, D.C.
Last week the House of Representatives voted to cut food stamps. The previous week marked the 5th anniversary of the financial collapse, and showed more American inequality than before the recession. And now we face a threatened shutdown of the government unless the health care promised to tens of millions of uninsured people is repealed.
Pondering all that, I saw the interview with Pope Francis in America magazine and his profile in the new issue of Sojourners. And from every direction, things that the new pope was saying were breaking through the political news cycle. Even my students at Georgetown were telling me that their young friends, Christians or not, were putting Francis quotes up on their Facebook pages.
It’s not every day you meet a practicing priest in the Catholic Church who is married, so when I got in touch with Fr. Dwight Longenecker (a man who meets the above criteria), I took the opportunity to get his take on sex, marriage, celibacy, and how the Church can, should, and already is dealing with sex differently, both within clergy circles and beyond them.
Dwight Longenecker was brought up in an evangelical home and graduated from the stridently anti-Catholic Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. While there he became an Anglican and went on to study theology at Oxford University. He married Alison and they have four children. After 10 years as a minister in the Church of England Dwight and his family converted to the Catholic faith. Showing that God has a sense of humor, Dwight returned to Greenville to be ordained as a Catholic priest. He now serves as a parish priest in Greenville.
You are both married and a Catholic Priest. How did that happen?
Wading into ongoing debates over religion and politics, Pope Francis on Sunday gently chided Christians to pray for politicians, saying “a Christian who does not pray for his leaders is not a good Christian.”
The pope’s remarks during a two-hour closed-door meeting of Roman clergy did not touch on more controversial issues like the separation between church and state, abortion, or refusing Communion to Catholic politicians who are not in sync with church teachings.
Instead, Francis quoted St. Paul, who urged prayer “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life.”
When I see him smiling on TV or on the cover of a magazine in the checkout line at the grocery store, I get the warm fuzzies.
I follow him religiously on Twitter and have a Google news alert set up so I don’t miss a morsel of his latest awesomeness.
The photo meme of him smiling gape-mouthed at a little girl accompanied by the words, “You love Jesus too?!” is my screensaver, and I wear a pendant with a tiny image of him on one side and of St. Francis on the other.
Pope Francis’ friendly letter to atheists, published this week by Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, has been cheered by Catholics who welcomed another sign of the pontiff’s new openness to the world beyond the Vatican walls.
But it has also prompted some gnashing of teeth among others, who are reacting to headlines about the pope’s letter like this one in the British newspaper The Independent:
“Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven.”
Once again breaking with traditional Vatican protocol, Pope Francis on Wednesday penned a long letter to the Italian liberal daily La Repubblica to affirm that an “open dialogue free of prejudices” between Christians and atheists is “necessary and precious.”
Francis’ front-page letter was a response to two open letters published in previous months by Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of La Repubblica and an avowed atheist.
The pope’s letter is especially notable for its open and honest assessment of the spiritual state of nonbelievers. And for an institution that long claimed sole jurisdiction on matters of salvation, Francis seems to open the door to the idea that notions of sin, conscience and forgiveness are not the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church.
From the very first moment of his unexpected election as Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina has embraced a series of small departures from established tradition.
He took his papal name from a great nonconforming saint of the Middle Ages — and one that no other pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church has taken. He then refused to stand on an elevated platform that would separate him from his “brother cardinals,” and asked the people of Rome to bless him rather than receive his blessing. He even insisted on returning to his hotel to settle his account (as though his credit were in any doubt).
Everyone who knew Bergoglio saw in him an unconventional and even unpredictable figure. He lived in Buenos Aires in a modest apartment rather than in the archbishop’s palace. He dispensed with a private limousine and took public transportation to work. He even cooked his own meals at home in his own kitchen.
Now, as pope, he has continued this pattern by ignoring long-settled traditions of what a pope should wear, where he should reside, and how he should conduct himself in public functions. Francis has chosen not wear the gold papal cross to which he is entitled, instead wearing the more simple cross he wore in Argentina. He also seems satisfied with normal men’s footwear, avoiding the elegant red loafers Pope Benedict normally wore in public.
Pope Francis on Thursday washed the feet of 12 young inmates, including two girls and two Muslims, during a Maundy Thursday Mass at a youth detention center in Rome.
The Argentine pontiff, who has shown an eagerness to break with tradition in the two weeks since his election to the papacy on March 13, chose to celebrate the rite in the Casal del Marmo prison in northwest Rome, rather than in the traditional venue of the St. John Lateran Basilica.
Francis has repeatedly stated his desire to bring the papacy and the church closer to the poor and the marginalized.
VATICAN CITY — Shunning the spacious papal apartment used by his predecessors, Pope Francis has chosen to continue living in the Vatican guesthouse where he has been staying since the beginning of the conclave.
The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, explained on Tuesday that Francis will live “until further notice” in a suite in the Santa Martha Residence, a modern Vatican guesthouse for priests and bishops who work in the Roman Curia or who are visiting the Vatican for meetings and conferences.
Francis made his intentions clear on Tuesday morning, while celebrating Mass in the residence’s chapel for its permanent guests, who occupy about half of the residence’s 130 or so rooms.
The pontiff’s choice is a consequence of his desire to adopt a “simple” living arrangement that allows him “to live in community” with other priests and bishops, Lombardi explained.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis issued a powerful call for the protection of the environment and of society’s most vulnerable during his formal installation Mass at the Vatican, while qualifying his papal power as a “service” to the church and to humanity.
The pope on Tuesday celebrated a solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Square in front of an estimated 200,000 people, as well as political and religious leaders from all over the world.
During the Mass, Francis received the symbols of his papal authority over the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics: the pallium, a lamb’s wool stole that recalls Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and the “ring of the fisherman.”
In keeping with the low-key style that has been the hallmark of his pontificate so far, Francis presided over a somewhat simpler, and definitely shorter, rite than the one that marked the start of Benedict XVI’s reign in 2005.
Francis was slowly driven around a sun-drenched St. Peter’s Square in an open-top car, shunning the bulletproof, air-conditioned popemobile preferred by his predecessors. At one point, he asked to stop the car and got out to bless a disabled person.
In his homily, delivered in Italian, Francis described the church’s mission as “respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.”
When I heard about the white smoke on Wednesday, I wrote on my Facebook wall: “Habent Papum.” My own church doesn’t use Latin, so I had to use Google translate to figure out how to change the “We have a pope” of “Habemus Papam” into “They have a pope.” I got a few good laughs for my cleverness before a Catholic friend humbly reminded me that it wasn’t just their pope, and that I’d have to deal with him too ... he has no idea how prophetic his words have turned out to be.
You see, I didn’t expect to tune in at all to the election of the pope. I was raised in the Catholic Church and received its early sacraments before my family joined the Episcopal Church (my father’s tradition). I spent plenty of time in high school and after defending its practices and traditions against atheists and Protestant friends and colleagues, and I more than made up for that by pressing hard on my Catholic friends on the nuances I didn’t understand. But mostly I only paid attention when the Catholic Church said something publicly or took a political stand on an issue I cared about.
But on Wednesday, the white smoke got in my eyes, and rather than confusing my sight, it’s made things a little clearer.
VATICAN CITY — A hierarchy looking to make a clear statement about where the troubled church is headed chose on Wednesday the first member of the influential Jesuit order to be the next pope. Yet they also chose Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a humble man who lives simply and took the name Francis (also a first) that evokes the founder of another great religious order.
The College of Cardinals picked the first non-European in modern times, as well – yet he is the son of Italian immigrants and grew up in Argentina, perhaps the most European of any country in Latin America.
And the cardinals above all wanted a pastoral figure who would project an image of vigor and warmth to the world after the eight-year reign of Pope Benedict XVI — an introverted, gaffe-prone German theologian who was 78 when he was elected and retired last month at 85, saddled by the burdens of this very public office.
Yet in his stead they chose a soft-spoken a 76-year-old who has been rapped for rarely cracking a smile — an image that Bergoglio did little to dispel with his low-key introduction as Pope Francis to the expectant crowd in St. Peter’s Square on a rainy Roman evening.
“Buona sera,” Francis said in deliberate, word perfect Italian, with just a slight Spanish accent. “You all know that the duty of the conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother cardinals have come almost to the ends of the earth to get him … but here we are.”
So what, in fact, does the election of Francis say about the Catholic Church at this point in its history?
White smoke billowed from the chimney atop the Vatican's Sistine Chapel on Wednesday, followed by bells ringing from St. Peter's Basilica — signaling the election of a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, 76, current Archbishop of Buenos Aires, will be Pope Francis I.
It took just two days and four votes for the 115 members of the College of Cardinals to elect the new pope.
We will continue to update you as more information is released.