Saturday, September 21, 2013


   By the title of this post I don't mean that we should look to whoever will be the pope after Francis.  I mean that we should follow Francis' example.  Francis is clearly looking beyond himself to the teachings of the church--more precisely to the teachings of Vatican II, and more gloriously, to being a true expression of Jesus Christ.  He is therefore doing two very important, indeed vital, things:

   1.  He is saying that the teachings of the church, especially those of the council, and Jesus himself, are the guiding stars of all Catholics, including the popes.
   2.  He is imitating Jesus, who did not preach himself per se but constantly pointed beyond himself to the loving presence of God on earth, in all people, especially in the poor, sick, outcast, and wounded.

   Vatican II taught that all of us represent the presence of Christ in the world, and it showed us the discerning way and compassionate approach to become spiritually mature expressions of Christ.  As Jesus lived in his everyday world, we are empowered in his grace to live in our everyday world in a way that could elevate it and where necessary correct it, and thus help make it more luminously human--even into eternity.  Francis is opening the world anew to a contemporary, Christ-filled, luminous humanity.  And a humanly/spiritually hungry world is paying attention.

   Two important conclusions follow:  
     1.  While we look to Francis for the spiritual leadership that is truly, plausibly and excitingly Catholic in a contemporary way, we must imitate him and look beyond him to Christ himself, to the fullness of our Catholic faith, and to our own spiritual maturity and actions in and for today's world.
           As a corollary to this conclusion, we must not fall into the trap of politicizing what Francis is doing.  His approach is neither liberal nor conservative.  It is a genuine, Gospel approach, and must be accepted and appreciated in Gospel terms.

      2.  We must be spiritually mature enough to look beyond all popes.  Jesus did not choose Peter to be a Superstar, or a top-down monarch, or the church.  Jesus chose Peter to gather up all the faithful expressions of himself within the world-wide People of God and give these expressions clarity and authority.  Francis is showing signs of being a true Peter.

    It is important to note that while the Spirit is always present within the church, popes bring their personalities and their personal views and histories to the papacy.  John Paul II brought to the papacy his strong personality and his personal history of subjection under Nazism and Communism.  That trauma colored his papacy, making him a strong leader who rightfully preached freedom and justice to the world, but who centralized church power by keeping  the bishops loyal to himself while disregarding the theologians and the everyday faith of the people, thus obstructing the free flow of the Spirit within the church.  

   Benedict XVI brought to the papacy his personal distrust and even fear of the world, a rigid focus on doctrine in a smaller, more orthodox church, and his personal attempt to restore medieval Christianity to the 21st century, even while presenting a very insightful critique of modern capitalism.  Francis' personal history and his Jesuit history make him more pastoral and more open to the teachings of the church and Vatican II.  But even with the Spirit present, Francis could be a happy accident.

   While we certainly accept the true leadership of whoever stands in the place of Peter, we should rely primarily on our Catholic faith tradition in all its spiritual richness, and on our own personal dignity, male and female, as expressions of Christ, in the service of the world.  While we thank God for Francis, we look beyond him and thank God even more for our own faith and for our own vocation and responsibility as spiritually adult members of the world-wide People of God.  

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