By W.T. Dickens, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair, Religious Studies Department
Director, Franciscan Center for Catholic Studies
Those who embrace Siena’s Franciscan tradition and mission can be cheered by the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Bishop of Rome. There are reasons to hope that Pope Francis will emulate his namesake, the great Italian saint whose life embodied personal austerity, servant leadership, caring for all of God’s creatures and cultivating peace among people of different faiths.
Although Pope Francis conducts business in the ornate Apostolic Palace, he has decided to reside in the much more modest Vatican hotel, dining with the guests and celebrating mass there for the Vatican’s housekeepers, garbage collectors, groundskeepers and maintenance workers. He politely declined to wear the ermine trimmed cape traditionally worn by the new pontiff during his inaugural Mass. And at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis said that the “beauty of all these liturgical things … is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics.” Rather, it is a reminder of the priest’s responsibility to be for others. “When we put on our simple chasuble, it might well make us feel, upon our shoulders and in our hearts, the burdens … of our faithful people.”
For Pope Francis, to lead means to serve others. He moved Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper from its traditional location in the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran to a juvenile detention center, where he washed and kissed the feet not of priests, as has been the nearly universal custom among his predecessors, but of a dozen young men and women, two of whom were Muslim. “This is what Jesus teaches us,” he told the inmates. “And I do it with my heart … because it is my duty; as a priest and bishop I must be at your service.”
Such humble service, in Pope Francis’s view, entails caring for all of God’s creatures, the human and non-human alike, especially the most vulnerable. This, he said, is a duty of all humans, not just Christians. He condemned the “iniquitous exploitation of natural resources” around the globe during his Easter homily. At his inaugural Mass, he said that protecting life “means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.” Later in the homily, citing the famous passage concluding Matthew 25, he reemphasized this, calling on all to “embrace with tender affection … the poorest, the weakest, the least important.”
For Pope Francis, protecting life also means “building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect and goodness.” This conviction evidently guided the new pope as he took crucial first steps to convey his esteem for members of other religious communities. When meeting with religious leaders at the Vatican, he sat in a simple chair rather than a throne. On the Pope’s left sat the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the first Patriarch of Constantinople ever to attend a papal inauguration. (Other Orthodox leaders have praised Pope Francis for his habit of referring to himself as the Bishop of Rome, calling it “music to our ears.”) On the Pope’s right sat the chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, AV”D, whom he phoned just hours after his election. At the Vatican meeting, he publicly emphasized the “special bond uniting Jews and Catholics.” Later, in an exchange of Passover and Easter greetings with the Rabbi, Pope Francis asked for God’s continued blessing on the Jewish people and asked for the Rabbi’s prayers. In addition to taking the unprecedented step of washing and kissing the feet of Muslims on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis spoke warmly during his Good Friday homily of “the friendship of our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
These are all good signs. Will Pope Francis also work to encourage an even more active role for lay leaders, including women, remembering that St. Francis was not a priest? Will he, emulating St. Francis’s desire to rebuild God’s Church, take additional steps to address the ongoing sexual abuse crisis and the financial scandals within the Vatican? And will he manifest the same enthusiasm for respectful dialogue with Protestant Christians and with members of non-Abrahamic religions? Time will tell. This much is clear: the new pope has already done many things that sound a welcome, Franciscan note.