Lessons From Pope Francis

Lessons From Pope Francis

Last month Pope Francis named nineteen new cardinals for the church. By itself, that’s not news; popes do that regularly so that the number of papal electors remains at about 120 as existing cardinals pass the age of eligibility to vote (which is 80). But as has been characteristic of his time of service, Pope Francis did things differently.

In keeping with his often expressed wish that the church pay attention to the periphery rather than to the center, most of the new cardinals were from the “edge” of the church: only two from Europe, only one from North America (Quebec); but from the churches of the developing world, most of the rest: Haiti, Nicaragua, the Philippines, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Côte d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso.

This can be a useful lesson for us. For most of us “the church” we know is the church of Europe, imported to the U.S. during the great 19th-century waves of immigration. Our architecture, music, private devotions…the entire “feel” of what it means to be a Catholic had roots in Italy, or Ireland, or Germany, or Poland. That’s a genuine vision of the church, but – unwittingly – it’s a narrow one. Francis is asking us to recognize the wider church Christ is fashioning, and to expand our own thinking about who our sisters and brothers in Christ are around the world. Right now, about two-thirds of Catholics live in the developing world; in a few decades, the estimate is that the percentage will be 75%. Catholicism is a church of the global South, no longer of the North. Our imaginations need to adjust.

The Holy Father is also trying to shift our imaginations about “rank” among God’s people: Here’s part of the letter he wrote to each of the new cardinals:

The cardinalship does not imply promotion; it is neither an honor nor a decoration; it is simply a service that requires you to broaden your gaze and open your hearts. And, although this may appear paradoxical, the ability to look further and to love more universally with greater intensity may be acquired only by following the same path of the Lord: the path of self-effacement and humility, taking on the role of a servant. Therefore I ask you, please, to receive this designation with a simple and humble heart. And, while you must do so with pleasure and joy, ensure that this sentiment is far from any expression of worldliness or from any form of celebration contrary to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty.

Becoming a cardinal “does not imply promotion.” That’s certainly a new and refreshing vision.

And so, at least for me, is another action pointing our attention toward the “edges,” Pope Francis has almost entirely abolished the custom of designating certain priests “monsignor.” (The title can only be awarded now to diocesan priests over age 65.) I remember clearly back in 1996 when Bishop McGann called me to say I had been given the title. I certainly recognized and appreciated his intentions to affirm my ministry; but I can tell you it made for some awkward moments among my priest-colleagues who were as able as I, worked as hard, but hadn’t been given the title. (I’ve always used the title in writing, out of respect for the bishop and the church, and since the current change doesn’t seem to affect things retroactively will continue to unless I find that’s an error. But I have always much preferred to be called “father” in conversation. For all the admitted difficulties with that title as well [see Matthew 23:9, “Do not call any man on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and He is in heaven”], that’s become the Catholic convention and has a long and honorable history in our tradition that I aspire to be worthy of.) I don’t think there’s any gain – and there’s a lot lost – in dividing up disciples of Christ according to ranks. Kinds of service, yes (lay person, religious, priest, deacon, bishop): ranks, no.

Our Holy Father clearly wants a new sort of church: humble, dedicated to service and especially to service to the marginal, and opposed to any sort of self-importance. On this Feast of the Presentation, as we celebrate Christ coming as the Light of the world, that’s a wonderful message that we need to hear.

Until next week, peace.