Pope Francis – the people’s Pope (Part 1)

Introduction: The tradition of the papal office

f there is a leadership role immediately recognisable in world Christianity, it is that of the Pope. With a tradition going

all the way back to the Apostle Peter, it is an office accorded honour, authority and respect from the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), comprising some 1.2 billion members worldwide.

By contrast, there are 345 member churches in the World Council of Churches (WCC) representing more than 500 million members, including most of the world’s Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed churches.1 The World Methodist Council is likewise diverse, representing 80 member churches in the Wesleyan tradition with some 80 million members.

All of these figures are of course approximate, and it should further be noted that Protestantism as a whole consists of a billion members. But in terms of a unified church structure and discipline the Pope is unique, since nowhere else in the world church is such authority bestowed by so many on one person. So when a new Pope is elected it makes headline news, and this particular Pope has been making news almost by the week since he was installed on 13 March 2013.

The history of the papacy has not been without challenges and divisions in the church. The original office was that of the Bishop of Rome, a title the papacy still holds, and which grew in stature as the church expanded throughout the western world, facilitated by the power and topography of the Roman Empire. However, the Empire was also instrumental in the first major division in the church, when the Roman capital was moved east to the city named after the Emperor Constantine.

While it was Constantine who legalised the church and who convened the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea in A.D. 325, the new capital gave the eastern churches a growing independence from Rome. Organised in geographical patriarchates with their own hierarchy, they effectively became separate in the 11th century, and are known today as Orthodox churches, comprising some 230-250 million members.

The next major challenge to the office was what historians have named the Great Western Schism. This began in 1378 when factions in the church resulted in two papacies in Avignon and Rome, and in 1409 even a third papacy in Pisa. To resolve the schism, the Council of Constance negotiated the resignation of Pope Gregory XII in 1415, replacing him with a compromise candidate Martin V.

While this did not resolve the problems that led to the schism, it did affirm the supremacy of the papal office, only to be challenged even more forcefully in the 16th century by the Protestant Reformation.

With the watchwords sola fide and sola scriptura, Protestantism rendered the Pope not only irrelevant but an encumbrance to personal faith in Jesus Christ, and while the Council of Trent (1545-1563) did much to address the theological issues raised by Luther and the other Reformers, Protestants and Catholics remained mutually opposed for the next two centuries, both with a sizeable roster of martyrs. They remain separated today, though much more open to dialogue.

Through John Wesley, who was a clergyman of the Church of England, the particular branch of Protestantism to which Methodism belongs was

initiated by King Henry VIII who assumed the title Supreme Head of the Church in England in 1534 on the grounds that the Pope as Bishop of Rome had no more authority in England than any other foreign bishop.

Ironically, Henry had been given the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith, by Pope Leo X in 1521 in recognition of a treatise he had written refuting Luther’s sacramental theology. With that curious British custom of retaining titles long after
they have lost their original meaning, the letters “FD” appear on British coinage to this day.

It is also noteworthy that the election of Pope Francis was occasioned by the resignation of his predecessor Pope Benedict XII on grounds of age and ill health. As the first such resignation in 600 years, it exposed problems in the church that required urgent and extensive reform. The one that has received most publicity has been the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy, but more fundamental and pervasive is a bureaucracy in Rome, the Curia, that has become unwieldy and self-perpetuating.

The election of Francis on 13 March 2013 and his dramatic steps toward dealing with these problems continue to signal the fresh winds of reform.

The first Pope from Latin America

There are a number of ‘firsts’ in the election of this Pope. To begin with, he is the first to come from Latin America. In his excellent biography2, Austen Ivereigh plots the pedigree of this Argentinian priest, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who became Bishop, Cardinal, and Pope.

His election was not just an adjustment to the global realities of the RCC, but a resounding affirmation of where the spiritual momentum of Christianity can most readily be found today – not in the old world of European tradition and sophistication, nor yet in those parts of the new world that merely reflect the old veneered with affluence, but at the grassroots of humanity where ordinary people live and work, and all too often still suffer.

His ministry has been dedicated to these people, and the outcome of his papal election is all the more remarkable – some would say miraculous – because at no point has he compromised this priority. To the contrary, in all sorts of ways he has affirmed it, personally in his lifestyle and professionally in his appointments and pronouncements
The first Pope to take the name Francis

There was some surprise in reaction to the name chosen by the new Pope. The image of Francis and the Order he founded is not only one of poverty, but also disdain for the institutional aspects of the church in favour of a radically simple life. As Vatican commentator John Allen said on radio in Boston, “That’s an awful lot of weight to put on your shoulders right out of the gate. If you’re not prepared to walk that talk, then you’re going to be in real trouble.”

Pope Francis immediately made clear that he would indeed “walk the talk”. His simplicity of life was already well known for his modest living quarters throughout his time in Argentina, before

and after becoming Bishop and Archbishop, as well as his cashing in first-class airline tickets and flying coach on his visits to Rome. He has brought these priorities with him to the Vatican, and imaginative stories are already circulating about him driving around Rome in an old decrepit car wearing threadbare clothes.

However, what is on record is his choice of down-to-earth habits, and more important, his meeting and talking with ordinary people as often as he can. Having chosen his papal name, he is indeed living it. n

Picture by neneo/Bigstock.com

Look out for Part 2 of this article in an upcoming issue of Methodist Message

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The Rev Dr David Lowes Watson is an eminent Wesleyan scholar, author and Methodist minister of the Tennessee Conference, The United Methodist Church. He was keynote speaker at the Aldersgate SG 2014 Convention last May. This is the first of a three-part article by Dr Watson on the ministry of Pope Francis, who has made international headlines with his decisions and actions since his election to the papacy in March 2013.