In the summer of 1979 I cycled with a friend from Durham to Rome. As we sped down the Alps and into Turin we saw from newspaper notices that the Pope had died. A few days later we were living in the English College in Rome and attending all the events around the conclave. Having stopped en route at Taize and Assisi we wondered what it would be like if the new pope called himself Francis – what a transformation of values that would be!
It was of course John Paul 1 who was elected – and who lasted only a few weeks. John Paul 2 was in post before the year was out and stayed there for a very long time. Nonetheless this chance proximity to a conclave created in me a sharper interest in new popes than I might otherwise have developed. Sadly, though, my response to the elections has been increased disappointment; with every puff of white smoke the promise of Vatican 2 seemed to be more and more diminished.
I was lucky enough to hear Paul Vallely speak about his book about Pope Francis at Ushaw College recently – the same college to which a couple of seminarians in a waggon returned our bicycles after the 1979 expedition. We had cycled enough and decided to hitch-hike home, and yes, it was quicker. You could tell from the talk that Vallely was excited about his subject – and still a bit mystified.
Francis is a puzzle to be sure, but Vallely does a wonderful job of both laying out the conundrum and then sorting out the issues. My feeling in the talk, reinforced as I read the book, is that he has read the situation right – and that there is real cause for hope for the church. Francis is certainly not a western style catholic liberal – not an Anglican in Pontiff’s clothing – but he is that rare thing among prelates: someone who has grown into his humanity as his career has developed. Like all of us he has made plenty of mistakes – but unlike most of us he is a better person and certainly a greater leader for them. He may not prove to be a ‘transformative leader’ but he is a transformed leader – and that at least gets him half-way to being properly transformative.
Of course he will have to get his strategy right – and the internal politics will have to stack up. But his creation of an inner cabinet of advisers from across the world is a good start. It is all too easy for apparatchiks to isolate the one who has positional power. Francis needs good company and great colleagues if he is to see his values interpreted in the life of the institutional church.
One of the most remarkable and encouraging sub-plots in the story concerns the way in which Liberation Theology is seen from the Vatican. The young Francis (that is Jorge Bergoglio) took a very antagonistic view, as of course did both John Paul 2 and Benedict 16. Things look very different now. Bergoglio became ‘Bishop of the Slums’, fell in love with the poor and antagonized the political classes. Meanwhile Liberation Theology itself became disentangled from a limited Marxist critique and vision. The result is that the new Pope is not only a penitent regarding his own actual and material mistakes and sins, but also convinced that sin can be more than personal – it can be ‘structural’ or ‘social’. This apparently small academic point changes the whole enterprise of practical and lived Christianity.
How in earth this will all unfold is anyone’s guess. The gesture theology, fulled by intentional but not inauthentic humility (Vallely is very good on this) from the new Pope has captured the world’s imagination, his preaching has focussed on mercy, and his recent encyclical was all about joy.
There is hope indeed.
Vallely gives the last word in his book to Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan liberation theologian previously silenced by the Vatican: ‘What matters isn’t Bergoglio and his past, but Francis and his future’.
There’s a huge amount of gospel in that sentence; making it worth a joyful ‘Amen’.