Recently there’s been quite a bit of history made in the Catholic Church, starting with Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation — an almost unheard-of move — and then the election of Pope Francis, the first pope from Latin America, and the first non-European in more than 1,500 years.
In the past three weeks I’ve watched more TV newscasts than I have in the past three years. I shared the anticipation of many Catholics — and people of other religious traditions and no religious persuasion as well — in wanting to learn more about “the new man.”
For many, even in less than two weeks, Pope Francis of Argentina has been a breath of fresh air, or at least a surprise.
From the time he first appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, wearing a plain white cassock minus the regal-style red mozzetta with its ermine trim, wearing his own old lead cross instead of a gold one, it was clear “times they are a’changin” — at least in externals.
People noted that this pope was down to earth (the root meaning of humble), bowing to ask the prayers of the people before he blessed them, praying common, simple prayers that Catholics know in Italian rather than Latin. He chose to stand at eye-level with the cardinals and dignitaries who came to greet him, rather than sitting on the traditional throne-like chair on a raised dais, opting to shake hands or give an embrace rather than extending his ring to be kissed.
While the press has reported, of course, that Jorge Bergoglio is a Jesuit (another first: the first Jesuit to be elected pope), I haven’t yet seen much coverage on what it means that Pope Francis is a member of a religious order, not a diocesan priest. This is a contributing factor, maybe a major one, in his leadership style — and one that bears watching.
While this might seem to be just arcane Catholic minutiae, it’s actually key to understanding this pope — and what “makes him tick.”
Many people, Catholics included, don’t know there’s a difference between diocesan clergy and religious order clergy. As pope, according to church law, Francis won’t now be bound by the rules of the Jesuits. But his training and years of living the vows, or evangelical counsels, will certainly influence his style as pope.
Religious order clergy takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, are committed to community living and sharing life and goods in common, and normally operate in a collaborative, collegial model. Even though one may be a superior, they are all brothers, a society of equals in every way except the fact that one is elected superior/minister/provincial — whatever each order names its leadership.
Pope Francis’ attraction to simple living — even in something as minor as sticking with his plain black shoes over red Pradas — doubtless comes from his training in religious-order poverty, and having a firsthand knowledge of real poverty among many of his own Argentine people.
Religious also tend to be in ministries that are more global in breadth and focus. A man may serve in Dayton, but know that he could be assigned or missioned to Kalamazoo or Kyoto if his religious congregation has a ministry there (or sends him there to start one.) This mobility in ministry keeps a man flexible and open (at least in theory) to a variety of socio-economic realities.
This is very different — different, not better — from diocesan priesthood, in which men are ordained for the service of the local church. Parish priests may live in a small group and have good networking among themselves, but in these days of “the clergy crunch,” many also live alone.
Often when a parish priest buys a car or a condo, you’ll hear, “Whoa! I thought he had a vow of poverty!” Nope. Diocesan clergy may own property, dispose of their own money, have investments. Priests, in the model of Jesus, are encouraged to live simply, but they don’t take a vow to do so.
They make a promise of celibacy, and obedience — not a vow — to obey their local bishop and his successors.
As a religious order priest, this pope will have had hands-on experience that there’s wisdom in the group around the table — both the meeting table and the table of the Eucharistic meal. Hopefully, this will lead him to encourage dialogue. He’ll know something about collegiality — that he doesn’t need to have all the answers himself, but can listen to the Spirit at work in all God’s people (perhaps women as well as men!)
Coming from a religious order tradition, Pope Francis will be steeped in a tradition of prayer — communal as well as personal. As a Jesuit he’ll know much about discernment and listening to the Lord in his life and choices.
One major plus for Pope Francis: He’s not a curia “insider.” He won’t care, one hopes, about the power plays and posturing that too often affect career bureaucrats, even those in the church. He obviously eschews pomp and monarchical trappings. Many are hoping Francis, like his namesake, will be the one who heeds Christ’s call to “rebuild my church,” with an energetic reform of the church’s cumbersome bureaucratic structure – and, more important, aggressively addressing the scandals of sexual abuse, questionable financial dealings and generally dysfunctional structures.
Not every priest who’s in a religious order is necessarily a sage or a saint, of course; 1,500 years have produced a share of scoundrels among them, too.
But a religious order man has committed his life to personal poverty (so he can relate better to the world’s poor); to community (so he doesn’t have to be the Lone Ranger in ministry), to healthy celibate living (and so can cultivate real and warm friendships with women and men alike), and obedience (listening to the voice of God in his own life and in the church). A pope with this background has a definite advantage when it comes to knowing how the Catholic Church as institution can be more effective, more poor, and more in touch with people in its mission in the world.
We don’t know a lot about Pope Francis yet. Much remains to be seen in how he will articulate church teaching and focus on the pressing issues of our day. How will he address the world’s growing secularism, materialism, grinding poverty, violence, global warming? How will he engage and listen to men and women of other religious tradition, especially Islam and Judaism, as well as non-believers and the many who self-define as “spiritual but not religious?” Within the Catholic Church, how will he respond to, among other issues, the scandals of sexual abuse and cover-up, financial mismanagement, excessive centralization in the Vatican, the role of women, the vocation shortage, the needs of families of all types?
Not everyone will be, or is, enamored of his stances, certainly. The honeymoon will likely be over the minute Francis speaks to maintaining Catholic teaching that some disagree with, especially on the “hot button” issues that make the news.
But if anyone has the background and lived experience to be able to energetically tackle the internal reforms the Catholic Church needs and present a witness of a lively, loving Christian witness, it’s a man with a background in religious-order life.
As a Catholic, I think the future under Francis will be interesting. Even when the media coverage fades … I think a lot of people will want to stay tuned.