I have to say that I am totally taken with the new Pope, or should I say, the new Bishop of Rome. The man lives in a guest house, rather than the Apostolic Palace; he rode a shuttle bus back to the hotel with his fellow cardinals after his election rather than being driven in a limousine; he carries his own bags when he travels; and in the more than 100 plus days since his election as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, he has yet to refer to himself as the “Supreme Pontiff.”
I was watching EWTN’s live coverage of the Way of the Cross at World Youth Day in Rio a little while ago and carefully watched Pope Francis as he made his way through the crowds to the site of the day’s activities. His interaction with the people, the way he spontaneously stepped off the Popemobile to bless a statue here, receive a gift there, or just to talk to and bless people and children was amazing. You could see the joy and happiness in the man’s face; that he was thoroughly enjoying every moment of it. You could tell it wasn’t about him just being the pope, but more about being a pastor and shepherd. And that emphasis is what makes him being Pope all the more special and appealing.
Pope Francis, the “Supreme Pontiff”, is so much more approachable than most bishops and priests. In the few months that he has been Pope, numerous stories have been surfacing about the acts of kindness the bishop does for others. But, the surprising thing about what he does is that his acts of kindness are not so much random as they are deliberate. What I mean to say is that his acts of kindness are genuine. They are genuine because that is the type of man he is…a kind man; a man who loves people and loves to be with them. You don’t see that kind of personality among most of our Bishops.
Pope Francis doesn’t see himself primarily as the Supreme Pontiff but as a pastor and bishop first and second. Certainly the man knows who and what he is, but I personally believe he is more comfortable with his roles as pastor and shepherd and that is inspiring. He has within himself the heart of Christ and that is why people like Sir Elton John have come to respect him.
Pope Francis has accomplished much over the past few months but the real test will be how he handles the hot button issues that have caused so much agony and pain for and in the Roman Catholic Church. But, if the last three months are any indication of the Pope’s tenacity and commitment to having a holy Church, then I think we are going to see a lot of garbage being thrown out the windows of the Vatican and a lot of spit-shining of the Catholic Church’s image going on before the year is out.
If Pope Francis succeeds is cleaning up the Catholic Church, then other Churches and ecclesial communities around the world are going to find it very hard to continue in their “business as usual” mindset. While the Catholic Church may not now be a model to emulate in several areas, I think it will definitely become THE model to emulate in a lot of ways in the not-to-distant future. Certainly our Orthodox Church will find it hard to ignore the fact that this Pope is dead serious about setting things right in his Church. Given that, our bishops will have to rethink their priorities and positions, especially in areas of administration and governance, relationships with the faithful, and ministry.
Our greatest talent in the Orthodox Church is the gift we have for polemic. We are awesome in our ability to point out the dysfunction in the Catholic Church but refuse to see that same dysfunction in ourselves. Whatever dysfunction exists in the Catholic Church, I think its days are numbered under Pope Francis. The Pope is 76, and while he is in relatively good health, he nevertheless understands that time is precious and that he must do all that he can to correct what is wrong in his Church while he is physically and mentally able.
Pope Francis is a good example for all of us bishops, both Catholic and Orthodox alike. There are lessons we can learn from him, good and valid lessons. Some (and probably most) of my brother Orthodox bishops would say there is nothing a “heretical and schismatic Roman Catholic non-bishop” can teach us. In fact, most would say he should look to us to teach him the right way. The problem with that assertion however is that many of our bishops only preach the Gospel and don’t actually live it, whereas not only does Pope Francis preach the Gospel but he actively lives it. The man is full of compassion, love and respect for his fellow human beings, and it makes no difference of what faith they are. Not only is that the sign of a true Christian, but it is also the mark of a true gentleman.
During one of his speeches at World Youth Day, Pope Francis told the people gathered that he wanted to rid the Church of clericalism. Can you imagine how that must have made some of the bishops and priests present there and watching on television sweat! And if any of our bishops were watching and heard that, I am sure they rushed to their medicine cabinet to grab their nitro or an aspirin tablet because the statement probably caused them chest pains.
All too often, clergy, especially bishops, act as if they are better than those they are called to shepherd and serve. How often have you encountered a priest or bishop who is patronizing; talks down to you or even denigrates or humiliates you in some way? Some are even downright rude and arrogant. Sadly, such behavior among the clergy is commonplace. Clergy, especially bishops, have a skewed sense of privilege and entitlement. Clergy should be humble and kind. They should emulate Christ in the way they live their lives and in the way they deal with God’s people.
We clergy are no better than the faithful which we serve. We may stand at the head of the assembly by virtue of the sacramental priesthood we have been given, but that certainly does not make us better than them. We are called to lead them in holiness and virtue. We are called to be teachers, pastors, and servants who are just, fair, patient, loving, compassionate, forgiving, merciful, honest and very devout and staunch believers. These are the characteristics of a good spiritual father, pastor and shepherd.
Pope Francis is an example of what a good pastor, shepherd, servant and priest is. We Orthodox bishops and priests can take many lessons from him and learn much from him. We would do well to pay close attention and assess where we are and what we are doing in our own Churches in light of what he is doing in his Church. Arrogance and a blatant refusal to learn lessons from people outside our faith will not bring us closer to God.