What Will the New Papacy Be?

Come to think of it, other papal elections in the past century have led to dramatic changes in the life of Catholics and therefore in the Church.  

When Cardinal Angelo Giovanni Roncalli, the patriarch of Venice, was chosen to succeed the then universally venerated Pope Pius XII in the fall of 1958, most Catholics probably assumed that it would be business as usual. It was not. In a short papal reign of less than five years, Blessed John XXIII revolutionized not only the Roman Catholic Church but Christianity itself.  

His successor, Pope Paul VI, came into office as many wondered if he would embrace the Second Vatican Council and implement its decisions. He did both. The plight of Paul VI, a good, holy, highly cultured and visionary man, was to preside at a time when Western society was undergoing profound change. The Sexual Revolution was attaining its full strength. Along with North America, Western Europe was achieving a prosperity that sowed the seeds of the profit madness now so much a feature of economics. Eastern Europe, China, Indochina and then Cuba lay in the hopelessness and godlessness of Marxism. The great colonial possessions of the once-unquestioned European empires were gnawing at the bit.  

Pope Francis
Pope Francis greets one of the priests whom he ordained on April 21. The Holy Father urged the new priests to minister with joy, as pastors, secure in the Lord. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Paul VI’s approach to all these features was a mighty endeavor. He changed the Roman liturgy in ways never imagined, and in retrospect the change was abrupt. He powerfully addressed economic imperialism and befriended the poor and weak. In his eagerness to recognize and favor the new free societies of Africa and Asia, he set the Church firmly into the soil of these emerging states, and by doing so began a process that has come to be in many instances the hope of the Catholic future.  

Pope John Paul I, a lovable and gentle man, came and went too quickly in 1978. Following him was the larger than life figure of Blessed John Paul II, whose reign was long, 26 years. With his own significant contribution, Communism passed from the scene in Europe — without bloodshed. He worked to calm tensions with outreach to Muslims, strengthened ties with Jews, and he called the Orthodox to Christian reunion. A masterful communicator, he thrilled millions around the world, literally. He humanized both his office and the Church. His writings are theological jewels.  

Then came Pope Benedict XVI, whose contribution to the Church as far as his papacy is concerned likely will be the written products of his extraordinary learning and, never to be underestimated, his personal asceticism. God has been with the Church.  

Now has come Pope Francis. Now, four months after the election of the Argentinian primate, the Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to Peter’s place in the Church as Pope Francis, Catholic journals and many a priestly conversation are filled with speculation. What will the new papal reign mean?  

For one thing, it will mean that the Church’s leadership at the highest level had no intimate involvement with the Second Vatican Council, as had John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. Pope Francis is not so young, however, that he cannot remember the council. The council would have been the major focus of his years in formation as a Religious and as a priest in Argentina. It affected his formation. It brought changes in the ways that he was accustomed to pray and in the perspectives of the Church and of its response to the world that he had learned from his elders. 

He grew to maturity in a new world and Church. His immediate predecessors lived through World War II and the unimaginable agony that it brought to Europe.  

Neutral until the last days of that war, literally, Argentina was spared that agony. Pope Francis was reared, however, hearing the stories of fascism in Italy, and he came into adulthood watching the Peronist hysteria unfold in his own country. Generally forgotten is the fact that Juan Peron’s downfall came when he tangled with the Church, setting one Argentinian against another precisely in terms of the catholicity that so deeply infused Argentine life. Young Bergoglio certainly had to think.  

His earliest years as a priest saw a military dictatorship in Argentina, and he witnessed, and obliquely was a part of, the controversial reaction of Church leaders to it all. He again had to think.  

He came into priestly and episcopal maturity amid the surge of pastoral care, and violent excesses on the part of some, on the part of Latin American bishops and priests, amid poverty in South America, a poverty at least overwhelmingly assumed to result from greed in European and North American business.  

He inherits the piety of his Italian forebears and of his fellow Argentinians. He holds a doctorate in theology, acquired in the restless, but also fruitful, days of theological reflection during and after the council. He has been a Religious superior, the archbishop of a major, quite cosmopolitan archdiocese, and primate of a national Church that for long centuries has dominated the culture.  

Very importantly, critically, profoundly, blessedly, Pope Francis obviously is a disciple of the Lord in the most basic understanding of the term. Read his addresses and comments, now so abundantly available, thanks to the Internet and the media. For priests, his homily at the Chrism Mass just days after his election, and his instructions to the new priests whom he ordained a few weeks later, are inspiring.  

How will his papacy develop? What effect will he have upon the Church and upon the way in which Catholics live their spiritual lives? It remains to be seen. Predicting the future of this pontifical reign is foolish. For starters, no one knows what factors suddenly will come to bear.  

Look to the future with hope but also with excitement. God is with the Church.  

Two recollections from those days at the conclave last March in Rome inspire me. The first is the faith of people. We priests are so privileged in our positions of nourishing and refreshing that faith. (My article later in this edition looks at this point.)  

The second recollection is of the national leaders who attended the inaugural of the reign of Pope Francis on March 19 in their official capacities. Four kings, four queens, 32 presidents, two governors-general, three crown princes, three vice presidents and nine prime ministers came to Rome at their own accord. This is important. In each case, a sovereign government made a conscious decision, and went to the effort, to see that a figure of the highest rank represent it that day in Rome.  

What does this say? The Church, despite all that has dirtied its image, despite all the indifference to religion in the world, enjoys enormous prestige. It occupies a place in world civilization that is unequaled.  

After the ceremony itself, the new pontiff received these national leaders. He knows how to reach people, and people respond.  

The queen of Belgium gently patted his hand, as if she were reassuring a pastor or an old friend. I suspect that they seldom, if ever, had met each other before. Bypassing altogether the etiquette for such occasions, the president of Ecuador embraced the pope.  

The countenances of the grand duke and grand duchess of Luxembourg literally beamed as the Pope spoke with them. The grand duke took his wife’s hand, a rather intimate action for royalty and under the circumstances. Did the pope compliment their solid Catholicism in their marriage and in all that they display to their people in their lives? I would not be surprised.  

The Church is fortunate in the new pope’s personality, and in his eagerness to encounter people, whether queens or the homeless. Thanks be to God. He draws people to him.  

God has given the Church great leaders in this last century or so. His gift continues. TP  

Msgr. Campion is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.