Three pontiffs in continuity

“Christ remains the center, not the Successor of Peter,” Pope Francis told journalists after his election: “Christ, Christ is the center.”  

Benedict and John Paul
Pope John Paul II greets Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in this Oct. 22, 1978, photo. Twenty-seven years later, Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

The primary task of a pope is to represent Christ on earth, and attract the world to the Lord. Who a pope is, what he says and does and how he relates to the world — all these speak (or fail to speak) of Christ. His office is the mission; and while great grace attaches to it — people who knew Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires are astonished at the extraordinary joy and energy that the 76-year-old pope now exudes — the papacy also reflects the man who occupies it, with his strengths and weaknesses, his experiences and gifts. 

Some are already seeing the nascent papacy of Francis as the last of a triptych that begins with Blessed John Paul II in 1978. After two decades of renewal, turbulence and division, when the Church turned in on itself, wrangling over ethics, doctrine and authority, came three popes finally not from Italy but Poland, Germany and Argentina, who set the Church on the true course set for it by the Second Vatican Council: not to adapt the Church to modernity but to make it fit for mission to the modern world. 

One way to see this triptych is through the classic theological description of Christ as prophet, priest and king. Popes are all three; but one aspect is usually dominant, the one that comes immediately to mind: John Paul II’s prophetic stand, Benedict XVI’s teaching and Pope Francis’ servant leadership.

Prophetic role

A prophet of God is someone who reveals God, speaks for God and communicates to people the truths that God wants them to know — which are often not ones they want to hear. A prophet does the will of God, often at considerable cost to himself; in following God, he finds true freedom and meaning. Blessed John Paul II was that fearless prophet: He embodied the Greek virtue of parrhesia, meaning a boldness to speak out, even at the cost of great unpopularity. 

His papacy saw a great torrent of teaching. Through words, but equally in grand gestures and great televised liturgies — World Youth Day in the Philippines is thought to have brought together the largest crowd in history — he summoned the modern world to open its doors to Christ, and took his message to its far corners. Like a modern Jeremiah, he fearlessly challenged modern idols (state, market, ideology), shaking his fist at the injustices visited on the poor. He preached a radical pro-life message, and was a fierce defender of human dignity.  

Governments trembled, regimes fell, ideologies collapsed; like Christ, the pope was rooted in the solid ground of God’s will, and the length and tenacity of his papacy showed it. His final prophetic act was his illness, which offered Christ crucified: his suffering and vulnerability demonstrated to a world that worshipped youth and health where human dignity truly lay.

Teaching through humility

A priest offers sacrifices to God on behalf of his people, atoning for their sins, and teaching them by word and example. Christ was also High Priest, offering himself in sacrifice. 

With his outstanding teaching and emphasis on the dignity of the liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI exemplified Christ as priest — a gentle pastor and wise guide who in ways quite different from John Paul II was also an outstanding communicator. Pope Emeritus Benedict spoke best not in staged events but his best-selling books (not least his “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy and book-length interview, “Light of the World”), as well as outstanding documents and hundreds of carefully crafted speeches and addresses in which he engaged the great contemporary questions with intellectual credibility and honesty.  

Pope Benedict taught, above all, through his humility: the same docility to God’s will that led him reluctantly to accept the papacy also led him, earlier this year, to renounce it for the good of the Church.

Servant leadership

Christ is also king, leader on earth of a body of followers who, after his death and resurrection, would form the Church. Accused by Pilate of claiming to be King of the Jews, Jesus does not deny it (Mt 27:11); but it is a kingship that “does not belong to this world” (Jn 18:36) but of God’s — which he demonstrates in the Last Supper and Crucifixion. Pope Francis, who embodies simplicity and humility in his exercise of the Petrine ministry, has surprised and delighted the world by the apparent paradoxes of servant leadership: kissing the feet of women in a Roman prison, wanting to pay his hotel bill, calling his kiosk in Buenos Aires to cancel his newspaper, preferring a simple room in the Santa Marta hotel to the papal apartments. 

Benedict and Francis
Pope Benedict XVI greets Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio at the Vatican in this Jan. 13, 2007, file photo. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

“Since my youth I have been entrusted with offices of governance,” he says in the 2010 book-length interview, El Jesuita. “As a recently ordained priest I was made novice master, and two-and-a-half years later, provincial — and I had to learn as I went from my mistakes because, for sure, I made many.” Later he was made auxiliary bishop, then archbishop of Buenos Aires, and elected president of the Argentine bishops’ conference. Pope John Paul made him relator of the 2001 Synod after Cardinal Edward Egan of New York had to fly home after 9/11. And in 2007, the Latin American bishops at their fifth gathering in Aparecida, Brazil, voted to put him in charge of drafting the meeting’s conclusions. His is the grace of servant leadership. And the papacy of Francis will be a constant lesson in what that means. 

We already have caught glimpses. He has refused to allow the great solemnity of the papal office to distance himself from people: in those first days after his election, he seemed to be constantly breaking free — leaping out of his chair to greet and hug people, putting aside prepared texts to speak off the cuff, or leaving the confines of the Vatican to greet people on the street. He has continually opted for what is simple and frugal — the place where he sleeps, the car he is driven in, the shoes that he wears — just as he did in Buenos Aires, for leadership is not a form of wealth but of service.  

As pope, he has continually prioritized, through words and deeds, those whom he exists first to serve. By stopping in St. Peter’s Square to embrace a child with cerebral palsy, choosing a young offenders’ prison for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, blessing a blind man’s dog or celebrating Mass each day with the gardeners and electricians of the Vatican, Pope Francis has made clear that it is not, firstly, the powerful who have his attention. He refers to himself not as pope — with all its connotations of centralized authority — but as “Bishop of Rome presiding in charity,” signalling a more collegial exercise of the Petrine ministry that he has begun to put into practice. 

Just as Blessed John Paul taught Christ as prophet, and Pope Emeritus Benedict taught Christ as teacher and priest, Pope Francis is teaching Christ as king. Here are three papacies in continuity, occupied by men with very different gifts, each modelling three different ways of following Christ. 

Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (