Rebuilding the Church, Reflections on a New Pope

Copied from recent columns in the Christian Challenger…

Among the major news stories this year so far was the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI of the Roman Catholic Church. The Holy Father speaking of his deteriorating health said, “However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary — strengths which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”  Health concerns aside, the 85yr old leader of the billion plus member church faced many difficult challenges ahead including the ongoing and increasingly damaging scandal surrounding abuses within the priesthood and the perceived cover-up of deviant behaviors, the role of women in the life and ministry of the church, the explosion of Catholic growth in non-Eurocentric countries, and the overall decline of religion in developed countries such as the USA.  With utter respect for the Papal office, I believe many ministers of the gospel have been feeling inadequate to the challenge of overseeing the church and preaching the Gospel in the ever-changing context we find ourselves in ministry these days.

With a disdain for most institutions, members of my generation forward have experienced the unscrupulous behavior of religious figures and political leaders played out through mass media. In fact, nearly every adult role of authority has had some type of fraudulent behavior uncovered, from school teachers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, preachers, Senators, and Presidents many of whom were protected by systems wherein which the victims were dishonored or worse punished for the crime(s) committed against them. Suffice it to say, those born after 1968 typically do not trust the very organizations our parents and grandparents trusted with leadership for society, including the church. So, the question for the next Pope and for all of the church of Jesus Christ is, how do we speak with meaning to a culture conditioned not to believe a word we are saying? Or, at least geared to be suspicious of any organized religion? These are challenging times for the church, but then again the Gospel has always been challenging to bear as light to a world filled with fallible human beings.

The challenges facing the church are real and great, but they are still only challenges capable of being met with vision driven mission and ministry. And, we will only meet the challenges with collaboration and commitment. In other words, we must be willing to participate in the creation of solutions and not just be sideline critics or gatekeeping controllers stifling God’s vision for the church and for the world God created.

Today the world is learning more about the newly elected, Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. A man of many firsts, he is the first Jesuit and the first Latin American to be chosen for the papal office. He is the first to choose the name Francis, which of course comes from St. Francis of Assisi who was called by God to “rebuild my church” in the 12th century, known for his love of the poor and his uncanny connection with nature. St. Francis is perhaps most widely known for his prayer: 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

As I said above, Pope Francis will be faced with great challenges in the months and years ahead as he leads the billion plus member global Catholic church in a time of massive cultural change and deep controversies. Perhaps rooting his papacy in the humility, compassion, concern, connection, and the desire for peace of St. Francis will assist him as he guides the massively, powerful institution of Roman Catholicism through the seas of discontent swirling around the tenets and policies of the most influential movement of Christian faith through the centuries. 

Even as we get to know the attributes of the person chosen for the papacy, some will undoubtedly say choosing him was a radical move by the conclave of Cardinals. Being non-European and from an order of the priesthood always said to never be chosen for the papal office makes this choice unpredicted and somewhat radical. Even the media folks were completely caught of guard including the “crickets” chirping as they fumbled through sheets of bios looking for this “non-contender,” which by the way fits with the Jesuits very well. Being a teaching order, scholarly and humble, the Jesuit way is not often associated with high pomp and circumstance. I have heard Pope Francis taught high school chemistry before being elevated to Cardinal status, lived in a simple apartment and used public transportation everyday. Blessings to Pope Francis, who began his papacy by simply inviting his followers to pray for him, and blessings to our sisters and brothers of the Catholic Church as they celebrate and begin in ministry together! 

Certainly, a radical choice is not a bad choice.  For radical comes from the Latin radix, the same word from which we get the English “root.” To be radical is to be rooted, to be grounded in such a way as to draw from the place where one is planted. In this sense, I hope the new Pope is radical and I hope I am too. For the Lord we serve was radical, himself. Jesus was rooted in the unconditional love of God for each and everyone, which he demonstrated through his life and ministry and perhaps most specifically during the most holy of weeks as he faced the cross only to rise again in newness of life.

As we prepare for Holy Week and for the Easter that follows, I hope you will know the radical Jesus, who challenged the systems of oppression in his midst, who lifted up the poor and the lowly, who healed the socially and physically ill, who reconciled the vilest offender with God’s amazing grace, who became a servant of all even unto death, and who gave everything so that we may know and receive life abundant. And, I pray we will grow as disciples of Jesus, who is Christ the Lord!