The Francis Effect — Embodying Sacramentality

Pope Francis 2

Sacramental expression is one of the hallmarks of Catholicism that distinguishes it from other Christian denominations. Many other churches recognize sacraments as a theological component to their identities as Christians. Yet, their utilization is not nearly as frequent or central as can be found in the Catholic Church. This spiritual trend emphasizes a fundamental premise that constantly permeates the Catholic faith — that the divine can be found in all aspects of life — birth, death, friendship, celebration, or even during occasions of illness, despair, and anxiety. In the words of Benedictine sister and renowned author Joan Chittister, “The sacramental system reminds us at every stage of our existence  that the God of life touches us through the most mundane of things: through water and fire, oil and light, incense and flowers, bread and wine, salt and the touch of the other. It reminds us of the essential goodness — the godness, in fact — of the natural world. It doesn’t teach us that nature is God or that God is nature. It teaches us that God comes to us through the natural because nature was created by God. Or at least it tries to teach us our immersion in life. When we allow it.”

This philosophy is also a key element to the spirituality that animates the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits, of which Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) has been a member for fifty-three years. Discovering the presence of God everywhere and always is what has molded the Jesuit mission into one that is focused intensely on social justice and advocacy on behalf of the poor — embracing the inherent dignity found in all human beings. 

Ever since his election, Pope Francis has consistently put these principles into practice through stirring words and visibly moving actions. Not long after the world had seen the white smoke that proclaimed his election as Bishop of Rome, Francis would embark on a path that would offer a notably different pontificate than has been witnessed in recent decades. Before giving his first papal blessing on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis asked the immense crowd gathered in the square below to extend their blessing to him. He then closed his eyes, folded his hands, and humbly bowed his head, as if to signal that he was receiving the cosmic energy of their prayers. Amazingly, the  throng of faithful who were gathered there to witness history followed suit, and grew silent, all immersing themselves in prayer on behalf of the new pope.

Many more dramatically unprecedented gestures have characterized the manner in which Pope Francis has exercised his ministry since being elected three months ago.

Francis has chosen not to refer to himself as “pope” but rather as the “Bishop of Rome.” The semantic change is important for a variety of reasons. Rather than establishing himself as a monarch, juridically, over all of the other bishops of the Church, Francis illustrates that although he carries out a unique ministry as the leader of the See of Rome, ultimately, he is one bishop among many, in a Church where the entire body of members, clergy and lay, exercise a plethora of ministries — which are blessed and harmoniously guided by the Holy Spirit. To highlight this point, the pope notably only speaks Italian during public occasions. Even during papal audiences where international groups comprise the crowd, Francis reliably insists on speaking the native tongue of the faithful of the Diocese of Rome. While the Bishop of Rome is a universal pastor to the whole Catholic Church, Pope Francis seems to find it important to underscore his dedication to the flock in his own ecclesial backyard.  This concept of collegiality among bishops was foundational to the sessions of dialogue that took place during the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). It is also a theme that has great implications for ecumenical relations. The Eastern Orthodox Church severed its communion with the Church of Rome early in the Middle Ages because of the escalating, unilateral, claims of spiritual and jurisdictional prerogatives that popes were claiming to have over all sees of the universal Church. The churches of the East affirmed that the Bishop of Rome was always reserved a special place, designated “first among equals”, as the leader of the ancient See where two of Christianity’s most prominent apostles, Peter and Paul, were martyred. However, they vehemently rejected the notion that in virtue of this symbolic position, the Bishop of Rome had the authority to settle matters of liturgical and theological practice for all Christians. Since Vatican II, both sides have been working ardently to heal this rupture. Many advances have been made but there is still much work to be done — mainly surrounding the issue of papal primacy. Astoundingly, when Pope Francis was officially installed as Bishop of Rome, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, was in attendance during the solemn liturgy. This was the first time such an overture had taken place during a papal installation ceremony since the Great Schism in 1054.

Other visual gestures the pope has performed have garnered the most news attention. Francis ditched the elegant, red, papal shoes that Benedict, the Pope Emeritus, was fond of wearing, in favor of simple, but purposeful, black loafers. In place of Benedict XVI’s gold-plated pectoral cross, gold papal ring, and gold, imperially-styled crozier, Pope Francis has adopted a recycled, gold-plated silver ring from the era of Pope Paul VI. He has also reverted to the silver, starkly realistic, crozier that was popularized by Blessed John Paul II, which depicts Christ vulnerably hanging in anguish upon the wood of the cross. His pectoral cross is also silver, and unadorned, bearing a simple engraving of Christ the Good Shepherd surrounded by a flock of sheep.

Further poignant acts carried out by the new pope have continued to abound, leaving the mass media and the world at large enraptured with curiosity. Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis personally insisted on paying his own hotel bill at the residence where the cardinal-electors had been lodged during the Conclave, on the grounds of the Vatican. Eventually, Francis would decide to make this hotel his new home, resisting the vast opulence of the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace. He later mentioned that he “psychologically” could not comprehend living in such an imposing, sterile environment alone. As a resident of the hotel, Pope Francis has taken to celebrating daily Mass in its chapel, even delivering the homilies, and eating his meals with the public in the dining hall of the residence. Essentially, he lives the same life that any parish priest throughout the world would, attending to the care of those around him rather than expecting menial service on his behalf.

All of these aforementioned incidents are indicative of a profound change in papal style, one that hasn’t been witnessed since the days of “Good” Pope John. Pope Francis, before all else is a pastor. Initially, this was the ancient role that the Bishop of Rome fulfilled, to be a pastor for the whole, universal Church — existing as an avatar of unity for all Christians, while “presiding in charity.” Through the centuries, the papacy has gradually been transformed from a vehicle of pastoral service to one of the last, conspicuous, examples of unchecked, authoritarian tyranny. Contemporary society has grown accustomed to regarding the pope as an archaic reactionary — particularly in terms of the church’s previous two papacies, most notably on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Although Francis is most likely firmly committed to a traditional understanding of many of the controversial pelvic issues that plague the Catholic Church in the twenty-first century, approaching them with an objective, positive tone could make all the difference in how the church is perceived in coming years. Merely by allowing theological discussions to take place on a variety of dicey subjects — such as women’s ordination, homosexuality, divorced and remarried Catholics, and clerical celibacy — would lend to the view that Pope Francis is a genuine pastor, declining to condemn certain targeted paradigms as heresy, but rather welcoming diversity to flourish through a multiplicity of interpretations on the life of the church. The new pope has been intimately familiar with such experiences after serving as the provincial for the Jesuit order in Argentina for a period of six years. In this post, then-Fr. Bergoglio was widely viewed as being very accommodating, respecting and upholding the disparate polarity of theological views that flourished within the Society.

If an instant and tangible shift in various doctrines espoused by the institutional church will not be an immediate reality, could an ecclesial climate change not be the next best thing for a hierarchy that thinks in centuries?  Is it too hard to envision that a renewed atmosphere of objectivity, diversity, and inclusion might ultimately end up, gradually, facilitating those longed-for changes in so many areas of church teaching? Pope Francis himself has stated that he will not consider being an ideologue as one of the components he will be looking for when screening candidates that he will be appointing as bishops. Instead, he specified that he wants any potential priests he elevates to the episcopacy to be, “close to the people, fathers and brothers” and that they should be, “gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life.”

If pastoral, open-minded, prelates such as these quickly fill the ranks of the institutional church’s hierarchy, who knows what subtle nuances in theological expression could soon be witnessed?

As Pope Francis continues to exercise a pontificate that is centered on the goodness, and inherent divinity, encountered in all peoples and circumstances, we can only hope and pray that such embracing sentiments will be accompanied by actions that touch the lives of so many who have long felt forgotten, denigrated, and ignored by the Pharisaic prelates of the institutional church.

All of these conjectures may seem supremely naive, but I cannot help but remain the eternal optimist I always have been. The Holy Spirit must have known what She was doing when She prompted the College of Cardinals to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first Jesuit pope. For as long as it lasts, I plan to wholeheartedly enjoy this breath of fresh air that has been gifted to the Catholic Church. May God grant long life, abundant strength, and a constant sense of objectivity to what could be the twenty-first century’s best hope for an incarnation of John XXIV.