A tale of two popes

I remember the excitement I felt when I was able to cover a papal election for the first time. 

Standing in St. Peter’s Square on April 19, 2005, I saw the white smoke, saw the balcony doors open and heard the words Habemus Papam. As soon as we heard the name Joseph, most of us in the square knew who it was: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The crowd cheered as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man for two decades greeted them in his softly accented Italian. 

But not all in the square were happy. Next to me was a group of American religious order priests and seminarians. While the seminarians whooped and hollered, the older priests were clearly less than enthusiastic. “That’s OK,” said one older guy to another as they left the square and the seminarians. “We’ll be back in five years.” 

Pope Benedict XVI, I am willing to guess, confounded at least some of their dark imaginings. His encyclicals were unexpected (“God is Love”) and powerful (“Love in Truth”). His writings and talks had an engaging clarity to them as well as an intellectual breadth and depth that mark him, I believe, as one of our most brilliant theologian popes. 

But for those unhappy middle-aged clerics, all of this was unforeseen. 

Popes Benedict and Francis
Pope Francis embraces emeritus Pope Benedict XVI at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, March 23. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters

Fast-forward eight years to the election of Pope Francis. The shoe, in many ways, is on the other foot now. Those who liked the liturgical adjustments of Pope Emeritus Benedict, who appreciated his intellectual rigor and the return to more traditional trappings and forms, are now the disappointed ones guessing how quickly they might return to the square. 

It has not helped that those publications and commentators so suspicious of Pope Emeritus Benedict are now shouting hosannas to Pope Francis. Indeed, much of the negative reaction on one side of the aisle seems to be inspired by the celebrations on the other. If they like him, the logic goes, something must be wrong. 

Whatever happened to all that rhetoric about the Holy Spirit? 

I think it is time for all of us to take a deep breath. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a surprising choice. This might be the time to pay attention to what the Spirit may be telling us. 

A few observations: 

First, radicals are not elected popes. It’s not in the job description. St. Francis was a radical. The job of Pope Francis is to conserve. But popes can also demand our attention. Popes by themselves don’t engineer wild changes in direction or content, but they can refocus our attention on parts of the Gospel or Tradition. 

Blessed Pope John Paul II gave us the New Evangelization. Pope Benedict XVI deepened this reflection and gave us the Year of Faith. Pope Francis may be showing us how to do what his predecessors have been teaching, pointing us outward by example of service, unity and love. By choosing the name Francis, he set the bar high for himself, but he also signaled to us that we might be more about evangelizing, serving and loving than determining who among our fellow Catholics are sheep and who are goats. 

Second, the Church is wary of “ex-popes” for good reason. There is a painful history of anti-popes and disunity. Those who now seek to pit Pope Emeritus Benedict versus Pope Francis, or who claim that they are “Benedict men,” rather than “Francis men,” do a terrible disservice. 

The Church can handle robust debate and discussion. What it needs is for all of us to observe what Pope Francis is trying to show us, and to reflect on what lessons he is trying to teach. Just maybe, this is what the Spirit feels we should be paying attention to. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.