Pope Francis: Agent of change or continuity?

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in 2005, announced as Pope Benedict XVI and wearing (as did his predecessor) the red mozzetta, it was a difficult moment for many so-called Catholic “progressives.” While those familiar with Cardinal Ratzinger through his writings and interviews cheered, these Catholics — convinced that the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was a “Rottweiler” intent on vacating the very reforms of the Second Vatican Council that he had helped to write — were appalled.  

pope in chapel
Pope Francis sits with Vatican workers after celebrating Mass March 22 inside the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican residence where the new ponti‚ff resides. The pope took a seat in the back row as people lingered for private prayer. CNS photo/L’Ossevatore Romano

“We’re going to lose a lot of young women,” predicted Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister during one televised discussion, “and we’re going to lose them quickly.” 

The peculiarly feminine exodus Sister Chittister expected did not materialize under Pope Benedict, and over time many who had anticipated a heavy-handed papacy came to see the pontiff as a mild shepherd whose encyclicals and pronouncements were what the National Catholic Reporter called “surprisingly pastoral.” Some, like writer Michael Sean Winters, declared that against all instincts — they had come to love Benedict. 

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s early days as Pope Francis could almost be called a reverse-image of that first reaction to Pope Benedict. In taking the name of the poverello of Assisi, he suggested a papacy of restoration and reform, and most Catholics could agree that some reforms are urgently needed, particularly within the bureaucracy of the Curia.  

But what did the new, mozzetta-free pope mean by asking the faithful for prayers before delivering his own papal blessing? What was he about when he said Mass in plain vestments at the Vatican “parish church” of St. Ann, and then stood at the doorway greeting its members like an ordinary priest? 

“Progressive” Catholics made much of the missing finery, seeing them as sartorial signals that Summorum Pontificum — and the creeping fustiness of lace, and general sense of lassitude from Rome, which the less-generous assigned to that letter — might fade into the background amid a newly-energized intent to really implement the documents and the “spirit” of the Council. Female priests might be unlikely, but perhaps married clergy would be permitted, along with divorce and contraception!  

Traditionally minded Catholics, particularly those who have become attached to the extraordinary form of the Mass and the 1962 Missal, noted Pope Francis’ more relaxed style and began to worry about substance. Would a pope resistant to the mozzetta be a pope disinterested in Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity?  

When the pope pointedly paid his own hotel bill and — accustomed to doing for himself in a smaller living space — rejected the papal apartments for something less grand, the ungenerous were again to the fore, wondering if there wasn’t something “ostentatious” in Pope Francis’ humility. When he decided to celebrate Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Last Supper at a detention center, where he would wash the feet of young inmates, including women and Muslims, many traditionalists could see only rubrics being cast aside and a dilution of Christ’s meaning in washing the feet of the apostles. If online forums are any indicator, the pope’s move was similarly understood by both the “progressives” and the “rad-trads,” but received by the latter with tears and the former with cheers.  

In those same discussion groups, more “middling” Catholics — those who do not count themselves as “traditional” or “progressive” — believed their passionate brethren were reading more into the pope’s style and ministrations than was fair, given the newness of his papacy. “Let Francis be Francis” they counseled, some joking that the Holy Spirit may have sent us a pope so level he would “annoy everyone in turn.”  

That joke proved prescient mere weeks later, when it was reported that Francis reaffirmed the 2012 assessment and program of reform laid out regarding the controversial Leadership Council of Women Religious, an announcement that had some declaring “nothing has changed” but with the cheers and tears reversed. 

In fact, change has come with Francis, as it does with any new pastor. But there is continuity as well, as illustrated when Pope Francis accepted the heavy papal stole in order to give his first blessing, and then reverently kissed it upon its removal. We might keep that image in mind, as Pope Francis takes his turn at the helm of Peter’s Barque. 

Elizabeth Scalia is the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress.