Thoughts on the Papacy of Francis: American Reactions

by Frank Wynerth Summers III ( Facebook Notes) on Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 9:02pm
It is an amazing achievement to have 266 successors to Saint Peter. Part of the joy of a Papal election relates to the sense Catholics have of all this. I am not really sure that I will ever feel the connection to any Papal transition that I felt to the start of John Paul II’s pontificate. Some have drawn comparisons between our current Pope Francis and John Paul I. I hope that nobody feels the shadow of the worst and most obvious aspect of that Pontificate. I want to say that I am writing this note as much about myself as about the Pope in one sense. I am looking at the specific aspects of the papacy which seem particularly relevant to me as a citizen of the USA and as one who is associated with the people I know and relate to in my life. The Pope is in many ways an affirmation of my life: my name, ties to Latina America and experience with the Jesuits. But I will alsomention some unique causes for concern. I have spent lots of time with Jesuits and in Latin America. Ialso have a strong interest in Eastern Christianity and although I cannot get into that aspect of this Pope very well it is one of his strenghts that he is aware of and knowledgeable about the Eastern Catholics with their languages rites and married clergy. But I will not give details here of my own biography I will only give a very few of his biographical notes. I want to look at reactions and feelings as well.

Clearly Pope Francis has the strength and resources necessary for a long and challenging reign if his health and circumstances permit such a thing. I will suggest that as to the nervousness many feel some of it is an unconscious response to some unique qualities of the current situation. Many Catholics may in a rational way feel that it is important for us to recognize that we have an historic opportunity to recognize this new Pope from the Americas and to see the hand of God in all of this and yet there are reasons that while many may rejoice in the humility and informality of manner of the new Pope it is also concerning in a church as large and diverse as this. We must trust and do trust that all is in good order but yet we wonder if the combination of communication between current and former Popes and the manner of the new Pope make it unclear who is the Pope. Yet there are surely many reasons why the average Catholic can proceed with confidence regardless. Nonetheless, one can suggest that while not being all that uncertain, this is the most uncertain trumpet call that the rank and file of Catholics may remember in the Holy See. For we have a Pope whose due and proper election nobody doubts who is still alive and we have another Pope who has foresworn most of the trappings of the taking of command. We all know he has taken command but only with reason and not so much with our subconscious minds.

In my confidence that we do in fact have a new Pope, I am writing a note about my first reaction to the election of Pope Francis. I do not think that there is a simple reaction that covers all the aspects of what I feel and think. But perhaps there is something I might be able write that is both true and insightful. First I want to really welcome to the titles of Supreme Pontiff, First Among Patriarchs and our Vicar of Christ this new man Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio former Archbishop of Buenos Aires and now Pope Francis! A joyous day for the first Jesuit pope, the first of his chosen name, the first from this hemisphere and the first from outside Europe in well over one thousand years. This is a happy and exciting day for me as a Catholic. I am moved and touched and expected to be neither even if a very great man were elected. An old friend asked me why I was moved and I tried to respond as best I could by remarking that I have known many Jesuits they have been my closest friends among the clergy, I mentioned them in my note on the transition, I am pleased to have a Latin American, pleased with much of his resume and although he was not on my very short list of preferred candidates he is one I thought well of overall. But really emotions are not reason, I did not expect to be moved this time mostly because I am in a generally bad mood. But I was wrong, I was moved and feel hopeful. I am also touched because my name is Frank and many of my friends have called me Francisco which is the name he will ask his friends to call him now in the third person. Beyond all that, it relieves on who has long lived present to all the world to have an Italian-American clearly demonstrate that the New World can produce a Pope who is taken seriously by all those European Cardinals and others.

Besides being a Latin American he is most notably a Jesuit. He will be required to distance himself more from his order than would some other order which welcome the fuller participation of those in very high Church office. He is already in that catgory of exclusion as a Cardinal under the Jesuit rule and arguably as a Pope will be more able to bend the rules than before. the Society of Jesus—the Roman Catholic religious order, also known as the Jesuits. As the largest male religious order of the Catholic Church, the Society of Jesus is present in virtually every country in the world, currently organized in roughly 100 Provinces and Regions. However they have a strong tradition of not contending for the Papacy from this unique position and there are countless other obstacles. However, in addition to being present to most local churches and cultures, the Society is an international body, and has always sought ways to strengthen our ministries via international collaboration through the close relationship between two Jesuit Provinces called twinning and the new development by the Society of Jesus of structures called Conferences which bring together Provinces in major geographical areas so that they might work together more effectively. With a huge presence in the Roman Curia and this expertise in dealing with many of the issues facing the Church around the world.

The fact that his father was an imigrant from the same part of Italy as his maternal grandparents hailed from does not change the fact that he was born to a native Argentine mother and is himself a native Argentine. There are certainly priest in Latin America who are deeply influenced by the Marxian and Marxist streams of thought and activity but Pope Francis was not one of those. However, he did grow up and has lived out his life in the great Latin American debate about justice. That is a conversation that has shaped much of my own life and thought as well.United States Americans wonder where this conversation will lead. I think Pope Francis will make us think a great deal more as a church about Justice than we sometimes have but I do not think he will lead us in the mode of a radical Leftist critique. Perfect justice is not attainable here and now on planet Earth and it is certainly a question honest people can debate as to whether it is ever obtainable. But to strive for justice and seek it out is one of the great human ventures. I am very interested in justice and always have been. But I am aware that merely seeking justice in general has a real price.

I am writing this note with more than a little bit of a heavy heart. Yet with a sense of resolve as well…
The truth is that there is only the weariness of long sensing justice denied in one’s own life that distinguishes those who become the most determined resisters of the status quo from many of their neighbors.

There have been many reactions that I have been aware of in this process. I am going to quote a part of two priestly reactions and to be fair both of them move to more deliberately positive and hopeful reflections on the new papacy than what my quotes represent. However, the shared surprise indicated in their responses seems to be worth quoting here. A priest on my Facebook friends list who ministers on the campus of my undergraduate alma mater blogged: “Just like most everyone else, I was shocked when the name surname “Bergoglio” was pronounced by Cardinal Tauran. Like so many, I was expecting to hear Scola, Ouellet, Ravasi, O’Malley, or even Dolan. But obviously, the Holy Spirit had other plans. Indeed, in his choice of fishermen as the first apostles, Christ chose the individuals others would least expect to be leaders of his Church. Christ has a habit of confounding the worldly wise! These other Cardinals seemed to many from both within and without the Church, to be the most “logical” possible successors of John Paul II and Benedict, but the Cardinals were inspired in a different direction. It’s humbling to realize how easy it is for us, even as faithful Catholics, to think we know what is best for the Church. How our ways are not God’s ways! (I will admit I was pulling for Ouellet because he directed my thesis, and I thought it would be neat to be able to say that the Pope directed my thesis.” The word shocked is a strong word and yet it is mirrored in other reactions such as that of another priest in my diocese: “Those who know me know that my actions are not impulsive nor are my thoughts or words rash. And since many have asked what I think about our new Holy Father and perhaps seemed to receive no answer, I offer my thoughts, which can be grouped according to three responses of my mind and heart to the great surprise of Pope Francis’ election:

Nervous. When the announcement was made, I was very nervous just like the crowd’s response in St. Peter’s Square indicated. That nervousness comes from the unknown…knowing little to nothing about Pope Francis. I’m also nervous about him being a Jesuit. They have quite a record in contemporary times…and we’ve never had a Jesuit Pope. One of the main reasons for being nervous is because of my love for the Sacred Liturgy and all that has been done in recent years to reform and restore its reverence and authentic celebration. Finally I think I’m nervous because I am afraid of what could happen in terms of a hijacking…we can already see some folks interpreting his life, teaching, and ministry in a very shallow way and for their own purposes. In the final days of his pontificate, Benedict XVI said that this hijacking of the Second Vatican Council’s authentic teaching happened in the years that followed it because of the media and other certain modern theologians at the time and we’re just now able to see clearly the effects of that rupture.”

There was never any doubt about the fact that many Americans have indicated some shock and surprise and so have some around the world. My Facebook page has already seen me communicating with someone who has been a friend for many years and who informed me that he was Jesuit educated and had a soft place in his heart for the men that taught him and yet felt uncertainty about a Jesuit Pope. He felt that his Jesuit instructors had all been good men who fed his mind and prepared him very well for college but he was not sure that they were raching out effectively to him spiritually at that time. I have heard others say such things but they do not really reflect my own experience. I have known Jesuits in outreach to the disadvantaged, at universities and in the regular silent retreats I have made over the years but also as parish priests and in wider fields of work in the Missions and in growing dioceses. My friend educated by the Jesuits as a youth seems to have come to point of deciding that his feelings were almost all positive, stating: “I am definitely intrigued, he seems the best of both sides, a highly intellectual and committed spiritual man. I am also excited by the name he chose. St. Francis was charged with restoring the church back to its spiritual roots. What a great mission in these times of chaos and spiritual upheaval.”

Each Catholic must feel their way into this transition and much more so the Pope must make his way forward. I am not feeling at all well about my own immediate future and so it is easy to overlook the oromise that may be found in change. However, for American Catholics of the United States and for their neighbors in this country there are some more challenges associated with accepting and embracing the Papacy of the former Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio S. J. He has reminded us along with other things which remind us of the complexity of a world often portrayed in simplistic terms. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires and not the Archbishop of New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago or Miami will be the first Pope and we have to face the challenges of seeing what other sources of influence there are in our hemisphere. We must be able to communicate with the world and that is not always easy. China has never been well understood by the US government and business culture and has been through a great deal of change continuously for over one hundred and fifty years and that makes it harder to understand. An understanding of reiligion in China is not really a possible national goal unless a lot changes. The situation in Russia has changed from Soviet Atheism to a society where parents selct from a menu of religious instruction for their children. Those religious instruction options are Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam or a sort of hybrid course offering a combination of religious history, secular ethics and civic morals. Britain has an official Church in each realm of the United Kingdom, Japan has a divine Emperor, Germany and France have numerous supports to religious frameworks unkown to us and they ones they reject are done so forcefully in socially demanding ways. This Pope is from an order of Catholic educators and has many opinions about them. He also knows that secular education without reference to religion is usually more likely to be of the COmmunist or Nazi totalitarian kind than certainly the very rare historically rare nihilism of American public school curricula. One wonders not only about what American families hear but also about what many parts of the world think about the complete lack of awareness of religious and ethical formation implicit in much of our way of doing things. To quote Obama’s most recent State of the Union Address:
“And that has to start at the earliest possible age. Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That’s something we should be able to do.
Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

What about addressing the need to form people and families more properly at a level that can only be conceived in religious terms? America has many issues that need addressing. They are religious and familial and as a government advances its claims without real reigion and real family elements it is always destructive (although it may do some good as well). Some Americans are worried about a Pope who comes from the land of the Perrons, a place where Nazis have operated most broadly in the post World War Two Western Hemisphere and a land where ideological struggle has different spectra than it does in our country. I personally believe that Pope Francis is tied to many great ideas and institutions and has the influences even of people like me because of who he is and what he is that mitigate against any bad influences in his world and background. He is also a man with many admirable qualities. However, Americans Catholic and otherwise can rightly regret not having the first Pope from this hemisphere. But somehow we must wake up to the many ways in which we are moving ourselves out of most of the most important games in the world. It is not too late fro us to be truly great but it is getting too late. Too many questions are not even addressed and too many prices are not paid. We will fall behind places like Argentina more and mor eif we keep doing the things that are sapping our energy and strength…

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2 responses to “Thoughts on the Papacy of Francis: American Reactions

  1. Pingback: Papal Canonizations: A Brief Insight | Franksummers3ba's Blog

  2. Pingback: Presidential Politics and Foreign Affairs | Franksummers3ba's Blog

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