Sunday, March 13, 2016 is the third anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church transforming him to Pope Francis. The pontificate of Francis is one that provides a new and refreshing perspective for Catholics globally, and an even more welcome appreciation of the Catholic Church for all other faiths. Upon his election, Bergoglio disregarded the usual trappings of vestments popes have worn for centuries, preferring to wear a simple white cassock when he first appeared on the balcony of Saint Peters Basilica to greet his Church. From the initial moment of Pope Francis’ papacy, things were changing and the Church was introduced to what many consider a revival to the, aggiornamento movement that marked the papacy of Saint Pope John XXIII prior to his convening of the Second Vatican Council. Whatever is happening as a result of Pope Francis’ transformation of the public image of the papacy is reverberating throughout the Catholic world and is indeed affecting other faiths, established political practices and most importantly the overall mission of the Catholic Church in the nascent 21st century.
Pope Francis’ background is already well known, the first pope elected from the New World, the southern hemisphere and the first member of the Society of Jesus to assume the mission of Saint Peter. In addition to these unique points, Pope Francis represents a solidarity of understanding regarding the various sectors of the global population that are most acutely afflicted with the effects of hunger, poverty and the lack of both natural resources and monetary entitlement. In his apostolic visits to countries outside of Vatican City, Pope Francis during his visit to his native South America implored the indigenous tribes of the Americas for forgiveness after what he admittedly recognized as the Church’s persecution of their cultures and lifestyles during the many centuries of forced conversions imposed by overzealous missionaries with Church approval. During the papal visit to South America, the Holy Father also decried the systematic destruction of the world’s rainforests which has resulted in global warming, the papal encyclical, Laudato Si, presents a challenge to the Church and the entire global community to work collectively to restore the Earth’s sensitive ecosystem, preserve endangered plants and species with a new appreciation of the Earth’s significance as our common home. The teachings of Pope Francis regarding the sanctity of the environment and the need to preserve the planet are not unique to this papacy.
Previous popes, of the 20th and 21st century have admonished the faithful on the subject of the environment through multiple apostolic discourses and teaching, Saint Pope John XXIII gave the world, Pacem in Terris in 1963, which emphasized the emergence of a new global community that was interdependent on each other and should mutually cooperate towards the goal of world peace. Pope Paul VI in 1971 through the apostolic letter celebrating the 80th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum which outlined the Church’s foundational teachings on social justice issued Octogesima Adveniens, A Call to Action. In this letter Paul VI wrote:
“Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation.”
Pope John Paul II, elected in 1978 did not lose time in making the environment his concern. In 1979, a year after becoming pope, he named Saint Francis as the patron saint of ecologists, and in 1985, he told the United Nations that “the Church’s commitment to the conservation and improvement of our environment is linked to a command of God.”
Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritas, once again states the same concerns now voiced by Pope Francis his successor:
“The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations.”
The papacy of Pope Francis continues to unfold a new understanding and appreciation not just regarding the Church’s role in environmental responsibilities, but also the Church’s important role when it applies to social change and definition of moral certitudes that are applicable to all faiths and all peoples. Pope Francis is a voice that strongly advocates human rights and the equal distribution of the world’s great natural resources. In a papacy, reflective to that of Saint Pope John XXIII, Pope Francis calls on the world’s leadership to foster an understanding and a solution to the needs of the poor and marginalized peoples of the world and acknowledge their equality in receiving the world’s resources and human rights. On this subject, Pope Francis states:
“Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities.”
During the Pope’s visit to the United States in 2015, Pope Francis eschewed the traditional vehicles recommended by the United States Secret Service and utilized a simple black Fiat as his preferred mode of transportation when visiting Philadelphia and other American cities. Indeed, the preferences of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis have bewildered and surprised the Church’s Curia, the global community and the Catholic faithful almost on a daily basis. From the inception of his papal reign, Pope Francis’ imposition of his own style and interpretations on the role of a modern Pope have been observed at the Vatican and the world.
Immediately after his canonical election as the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis insisted on riding on the shuttle bus, with fellow cardinals back to the Casa Santa Marta instead of taking possession of the papal accommodations in the Apostolic Palace. He refused the use of the Pope Mobile, made famous by his predecessor, Saint Pope John Paul II, and joined the cardinals that just elected him to the pontificate on a shuttle ride back to their temporary hotel. Equally astonishing, Pope Francis insisted on remaining a resident of the Casa Santa Marta and announced that he would use this hotel, usually reserved for visiting cardinals and dignitaries as his official residence. To date, Casa Santa Marta continues to serve as the Holy Father’s home and office while also providing services to the Vatican diplomatic community as it was intended when the Casa was constructed.
In three years, the Catholic Church through Pope Francis’ gregarious nature, has been transformed by unexpected actions and statements on a level unprecedented in any previous pontificate. Pope Francis prefers extemporaneous and often blunt responses to questions when asked. Not without criticism, his comments often include interjections that involve political issues, such as the pope’s comments on the candidacy of Donald Trump for president in the United States. When asked about Mr. Trump, Pope Francis stated:
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said when a reporter asked him about Mr. Trump on the papal airliner as he returned to Rome after his six-day visit to Mexico.
An unusual answer for the Bishop of Rome, whose responses are usually well scripted by his personal staff, and usually noncommittal. However, in Pope Francis the Church and the world experiences a new sort of pope, one that is not afraid to express his thoughts and opinions freely, regardless of what is traditionally considered normative for a pope.
A few weeks ago Francis surprised the world with a change to the traditional Washing of the Feet, during the Mass of the Evening Supper on Holy Thursday. The ritual has always been reserved for men or young boys. Pope Francis ordered a revision to the General Instructions of the Roman Missal to include women in the ancient ritual. The reaction throughout the Catholic world has been received with both praise and criticism. Despite the reactions, Pope Francis is intent on inserting a little bit of equality between the sexes whenever he can. This is the demeanor of the current Bishop of Rome and the world most certainly will experience more of Pope Francis’ subtle and obvious impositions of will to tailor his interpretations of the papacy to accomplish the Church’s mission.
Three years in the overall life of the Catholic Church is the blink of an eye in terms of Pope Francis’ papacy. Despite this, his positive changes to the role of the Bishop of Rome indicate that his ministry extends not only to Rome, but to the entire planet. The Second Vatican Council convened from 1962 until 1965 with the intent to bring the Catholic Church into the 20th century. Decades after the conclusion of the Council, Pope Francis seemingly is committed to continuing the Council’s declarations and effects. Perhaps the third anniversary of Pope Francis to the papacy is most importantly a celebration of how he has effected the world since he was thrust on the global stage as Pope.
Since his election, Pope Francis’ message is restoring the faith of millions through his teachings of mercy and forgiveness. Scores of alienated Catholics have returned to the Church and her Sacraments because of his personal call for repentance, with forgiveness and mercy as the response of our heavenly Father.
His universal call for human rights, and the eradication of hunger and poverty along with free access for all peoples to the natural resources of the planet, namely food, water and a clean and safe place to live demands a humanitarian response from all faiths and governments globally to answer the cries of the poor and less fortunate.
Pope Francis consistently demands that the world’s wealthiest nations, provide a means to lift up the world’s most underprivileged peoples from the ravages of hunger, poverty and inhumanity which includes war, terrorism and suppression of human dignities.
The Holy Father once again has made the ecumenical movement an important consideration for the global world of faith. Catholics, along with Anglicans, Orthodox Christians, Protestant denominations are now engaged in conversations that diminish our theological differences of faith and celebrate those points that make us all brothers and sisters in faith.
Judaism, Islam and other non-Christian members of the world’s community of faith are embraced through Pope Francis’ willingness to join with them in a fellowship that celebrates faith and our collective appreciation of our humanity as the critical component that unites us all.
In three years, Pope Francis has accomplished quite a bit towards elevating his role as the head of the Catholic Church to one that is more representative of a global presence for peace and human fellowship. Despite critics, the Catholic Church through the message and ministry of Pope Francis is emerging as a more open and caring institution that is concerned with not just the expression of the principles of the Catholic faith, but with making the principles of the Catholic faith more in tune with the needs of the world in the 21st century. This is the reason we should celebrate the anniversary of Pope Francis’ election to the papacy. Perhaps it was necessary for the Catholic Church to elect the first pope from the New World, and the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, not for novelty but in order to realize and understand the intentions of Saint Pope John XXIII when he announced the policy of aggiornamento and announced the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII spoke perhaps prophetically at the Church of Saint Paul Outside the Walls the following:
“Oh, what a wonderful spectacle if the Bishop of Rome extends his watchful care to the whole world, to whose spiritual government he is made responsible through the divine mission entrusted to him in the succession of the supreme apostolate! It is a happy spectacle, on the one hand, where the grace of Christ continues to multiply the fruits and portents of spiritual elevation, of health and sanctity in the whole world.”
It is fifty years since John XXIII made this monumental announcement that would change the direction of the Catholic Church and its place in the newly emerging world after the tragic effects of the Second World War. Many things have transpired from then until the pontificate of Pope Francis and the Church continues on its eschatological journey towards union with God in eternity. For now, we are continuing the vision of John XXIII, and the determination of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to make the Church part of the modern world. Thankfully, Pope Francis continues the journey as he adapts the Church’s mission and ministry to the needs of our contemporary society of the 21st century, with his own unique and personal style and methodology. For Pope Francis, it is about a global awareness of the needs of all mankind. It should be the same understanding for all of the world’s Catholics that respect and revere the Primacy of Peter, Pope Francis as he marks the third anniversary of his election to the most visible position of authority on the planet, one that announces the peace and forgiveness of God’s unending mercy to all peoples.
Blessings and heartfelt best wishes to Pope Francis from a world that has experienced wounded hearts and broken promises, but never abandons hope in God’s love and mercy.