Habemus papam (We have a pope)

Yes, habemus papam: we have a pope. His given name is Jorge Bergoglio, the Argentinian son of Italian immigrant parents, and his chosen name is Francis, a name which with its evocation of the beloved Francis of Assisi sets the bar for his papacy very high. Dr Conway’s thought (in the previous blog) that the new pope might come from outside the Curia and from another continent than Europe has proven to be true.

In this blog, I’m not going to go over the many aspects of his election, his character and his history. The media in recent weeks have gone on and on about these subjects. CNN and Fox News have told us numerous times that when he was in Buenos Aires, he made his own breakfast. I don’t know by what providence we have so far been spared a thorough investigation of what he eats for breakfast; perhaps it’s coming. And the media interest didn’t fade after his election: coverage of his observance of Holy Week has already been ample. We have been shown a photograph of him on Maundy (Holy) Thursday washing the feet of twelve prisoners in a Roman youth-detention centre, and informed that among these were non-Roman Catholics and even women. This, I am ready to affirm, is symbolically much more powerful than the traditional papal washing of the feet of twelve priests in the glorious setting of Rome’s diocesan cathedral, the Basilica of St John Lateran, and the media were quick to pick up on it.

What I do want to do, rather, is reflect on the “we” in the phrase “we have a pope.” Who is we, so to speak? There is more than one answer to this question.

When the designated cardinal, after the papal election, comes out on the balcony above St Peter’s Square, and says to a largely Roman crowd “Habemus papam!“, he is in the first instance telling them that they, the Romans, have a new bishop, a new bishop of Rome.

But this is only the first cohort of a greater “we.” Beyond the Roman Catholic inhabitants of the diocese of Rome come all the other Roman Catholics of the world, 1.2 billion of them. To them he is more pope than bishop, the head of their church worldwide.

And beyond them come the rest of us–Christians of other traditions, members of other world religions, and any agnostic or atheist with a radio, a TV set or a newspaper. The largest cohort in the “we” is this one, those who, if the massive media attention is any guide, are interested in who will lead the Roman Catholic church for the next few years.

Why should this be? Why should non-Roman Catholics be interested in the identity of the new head of a religious body to which they don’t belong? Various reasons come to mind.

First, 1.2 billion people is an enormous number. If Wikipedia is correct, there are some 7.075 billion people in the world. This means that 17% or so of the world’s population is Roman Catholic, roughly one in six. If something important happens for the Roman Catholic Church, it cannot but affect the rest of us. If, for example, the new pope decided to change his church’s position on abortion or homosexuality, this would have enormous and immediate repercussions. The fact that recent popes (and, the media tells us, this new pope is very much of their mind) have firmly rejected any such changes is already having a different effect, with many Roman Catholics ceasing to participate in the Catholic community (whether or not they “lose their faith” is another question) over these issues, and many non-Catholics seeing the church of Pope Francis as an ossified institution.

Second, the papacy maintains–because in international law it is a state, the State of Vatican City–a global diplomatic service. My hunch is that the pope, if he wants to be, can be one of the two or three best-informed people on the planet. It gives him an unequalled position from which, under certain circumstances, he can have a decisive influence on world affairs, which again, affect all of us. John XXIII (pope 1958-63) was instrumental in the defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and John Paul II (pope 1978-2005) was instrumental in the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Third, we live in an anxious and complicated world. There are many of us, Roman Catholic and otherwise, who would welcome creative moral and spiritual leadership on the global level. To some extent the Dalai Lama fills this role, and personally I welcome his consistent emphasis on the need for kindness and compassion. But we need more than this, particularly in relation to the maleficent influence of so many corporations, the willingness to put short-term economic gain ahead of the health of the planet, the sick fantasies of the potential use of nuclear weapons, the continuing abuse of indigenous populations who have the misfortune to live near valuable natural resources, and so on. Pope Francis has already said that he wants his papacy to focus on the needs of the poor–so may it be!

In this regard, I have thought for some time that the other Christians of the world would be smart to make a deal with the pope. Thanks to the media, many Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists already think of the pope not simply as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but as the leader of world Christianity, the top Christian of the world.  The denominational differences between Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists and so on are not mediagenic, and so are invisible to the inhabitants of our media-soaked world. My own church, the Anglican Church, with 70 million members, represents about one per cent of the world’s population; there is no comparison between the potential clout of 17% of the world’s population and one per cent.

(I note in this connection that he sent warm greetings to Justin Welby, the new archbishop of Canterbury, at the time of his installation in Canterbury two days after his own in Rome. This was more attention than Dr Welby received from The Globe and Mail, which devoted not a single line of print to his installation. Perhaps technically his official view is like that of John Paul II, who in an unguarded moment referred to the then-archbishop of Canterbury as “a heretical layman.” Still, a warm gesture.)

Might it be possible for the pope to become, functionally, what the media have already made him, the president, shall we say, of the world’s Christians?  He could distinguish those times when he was speaking only on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, and when, on particular occasions, particularly those related to justice and peace, he was speaking on behalf of all the world’s Christians (perhaps he could wear different hats to make it clear exactly for whom he was speaking!). This would boost his constituency to 33% of the world’s population, one in three.

So there “we” are. “We” are members of the diocese of Rome, other Roman Catholics of the world, other Christians of the world, and other world citizens looking for moral and spiritual leadership. Somewhere in there is the deeper reason that the world’s media went papally bananas after the retirement of Benedict XVI and continues to do so as the papacy of Pope Francis begins.

We wish him well.

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6 Responses to Habemus papam (We have a pope)

  1. mivasair says:

    Don, I like your perspective. It would be wonderful for “us” all to have a pope who’s earned the near universal moral authority that the Dalai Lama has.
    One small point I’d like to add is that you mentioned only Western Christian churches in their multitudinous glory. I want at least to mention the many Eastern churches as well which often are overlooked by the mainstream media — Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syraic, Roumanian, etc.

  2. Why was I so happy over Pope Francis? “We have white smoke”. I first heard the news within the [Washington] State Senate Chambers. Bill debate was interrupted, as the news was yelled from the Gallery.

    I can’t resist saying “Was the Vatican just blowing smoke, or do “WE” have a Pope?” Your comments capture the question within the context of all of us on the planet.

    My Good Friday wish:
    What if Pope Francis convened a group of leaders- moral leaders? The Council of Spiritual Elders, even if it was only to pray. Might the planet leaders lean towards Peace?

    Mandela – on The Elders:

    “This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken,” Mandela commented. “Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”
    Tutu currently serves as Chair of The Elders. The other members of the group are Martti Ahtisaari, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Graça Machel and Mary Robinson.

  3. Thanks to David Mivasair for his comment. I did consider the Eastern Christians in the math, but I neglected to mention them by name.

  4. tm says:

    Great blog post

  5. This is a good look at the papacy. I particularly like Mr. Perez-Gibson’s suggestion about a council of elders, and would volunteer to be part of such a group, “if only to pray.”

  6. diannedesr says:

    “May God forgive you for what you’ve done” were the words newly-elected Pope Francis told fellow cardinals over dinner, soon after his election and first appearance as Pope.

    Whatever our differences in theology … I like his witty sense of humour and humility … and I am hopeful that he will be a champion of the poor.

    See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diCyaUJYd9M

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