On February 11 of this year, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI would step down from the papacy, ending his leadership of the Catholic Church worldwide. He would be the first Pope to step down since Pope Gregory XII, nearly six centuries ago. (Pope Gregory stepped down as a result of the Great Schism in the Catholic Church, more specifically the Western Schism, which resulted in two popes -- and, near the end of the schism, three popes -- in order that there would be one singular head of the Catholic Church.) Pope Gregory XII's stepping down was under outside pressure. If you want to get a little more specific, Pope Benedict XVI would be the first pope to step down without outside pressure since Pope Celestine V, whose papacy lasted just over five months in 1294.
On February 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI ended his nearly-eight year papacy, resulting in "sede vacante", or vacant seat. He is now referred to as Pope Emeritus. ("Emeritus" means "having served one's time".)
The Papal Conclave to elect the next pope convened with 115 cardinals this past Tuesday, March 12. It concluded the following evening, March 13, after only five ballots, with white smoke emanating from a smokestack -- black smoke means no pope elected yet -- and bells ringing. Just over an hour after the white smoke was seen, it was declared "Habemus Papam!", or "We have a Pope!" Stepping out onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would now and forever be known as Pope Francis.
His papacy has a number of firsts attached to it already. He is the first pope from outside Europe in almost thirteen centuries (Gregory III, 731-741 A.D.); the first to come from the Southern Hemisphere (Argentina); the first from the Americas (Latin America); the first to take the name of Francis (after St. Francis of Assisi); the first to take a name never taken before in 1,100 years; and the first Jesuit to be elected pope. His taking of the name of Francis seems to indicate a strong emphasis on humility and helping the poor, which he has done much of while in Argentina.
Signs of how he intends to live out his papacy could be found at his first appearance (when he asked for the crowd's blessing for him, and bowed to receive it, before he offered his blessing; wearing a simple white cassock) and on his first day (going to the hotel where he stayed before entering the conclave in order to pay his bill; opening the seal to the papal apartment and supposedly commenting, "There's room for 300 people here. I don't need all this space.").
One of the words being used early on to describe the hopes for his papacy is "reformer". At a time when the Catholic Church is in such turmoil, both internally and in public perception, it has been accepted that a reformer is badly needed. Indeed, a reformer is needed. As a former Catholic, thus an outsider looking in, I also agree a reformer is undeniably needed. Not that I personally or spiritually have anything invested in this, but I do hope Pope Francis will be the reformer that is so sorely needed at this time.
The question that begs asking, aside from "will he or won't he", is what kind of reform will he bring?
There are several definitions for the word "reform". Some of them are:
to put or change into an improved form or condition;
to put an end to something unacceptable by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action;
to induce or cause to abandon evil ways;
to become changed for the better.
The "improved form or condition" and "introducing a better method or course of action" would certainly be goals of Pope Francis' much more simplistic ways. It will be interesting to see how that carries over to the Catholic Church at large. (He was quoted as saying he wanted a "poor church for a poor people".) Regarding the inducing of or causing the abandoning of evil ways could be the way to address, hopefully seriously for once and all, the financial abuses and child abuse cases of the Catholic Church. It has not been, as is widely suggested, secular influences alone that have caused the downslide of the Catholic Church. The closing or merging of Catholic schools, the closing or merging of Catholic churches, and the large number of multi-million dollar settlements have been brought on internally, not externally.
The are many Bible verses and passages that speak of reaping what you sow. The time of sowing has been, and I believe still is, going on for a very, very long time. The time of reaping has been, and continues to be, at hand.
At one time, the ostentatious nature of the Catholic Church (i.e. the Vatican, many of its individual churches) seemed fitting. Anything that seemed as "common as the people" couldn't have a sense of high importance and, I would argue, the aesthetics of grandeur fed into that perception. Such grandeur (i.e. altars, chalices, clerical garb) was helpful, I believe, in getting those who were much simpler folk (i.e. country-dwellers and distant villagers) to be impressed with the church's importance. Yes, the Catholic Church did have a much deeper message than merely appearances, but appearances helped to make first impressions...and you know what they say about first impressions.
It isn't just the secular folk (non-churchgoers, non-believers, atheists, etc.) who have seen what has been going on and have been screaming for an end to the abuses, but Catholics, and other religious persons, have been crying out as well. How can the Catholic hierarchy say that only outsiders or troublemakers, of whatever kind, are the problem when those among your own numbers have abused or been abused? Your house is not crumbling from the outside in, but from the inside out.
In the gospel of Matthew, there is a parable of Jesus' called the parable of the wise and foolish builders. It reads, "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was its fall!" (Matt. 7:24-27, New Revised Standard Version)
So, Jesus' words included the abuse of power and the giving of a bad name to religion as good things? Worthwhile things? Desirable things? Perhaps there should be a parable about pretending your house is built on rock when it is actually built on sand.
Last summer, I wrote a similar article on this topic with emphasis on a case against a priest in Philadelphia. My interest, albeit as no longer a member of the Catholic Church, is a personal issue for me. I think any institution is prone to abuse. The key is not simply having guidelines in place to avoid it as best as possible; those are preventative measures. The key is what is done when it happens.
And so, at this time of crossroads within the Catholic Church, there are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide who will be watching, I'm sure with great anticipation and hope, as to what Pope Francis does. Will his simplistic and humble approach reform the church's approach in general? As I have always understood it, Jesus never operated in any other way than simplistically. A lot less ostentatiousness and a more down-to-earth and meet-the-people-on-their-level approach would not hurt, in my opinion.
And yet, I wonder what role do simplicity and humility have in the reformation that is needed regarding long-standing abuses? What key are they to that kind of reform? Pope Francis is only a few days into his papacy and, barring any unforeseen tragedy, time will tell as to what keys he holds and to what kind of a reformer he will be.