Pope Francis’ vision of and role in the church

Pope Francis’ vision of and role in the church


I was invited to speak at the annual American Academy of Religion conference this week in San Diego. And while Europe-to-West Coast travel is exponentially worse than to the East Coast (17 hours in the air one way!), it was well worth the trip.

I was there to present some work for a collaborative volume we are publishing on interreligious responses to immigration, and that project is coming along nicely. But I also was able to visit with colleagues and friends and, because the AAR meets in conjunction with the SBL (Society of Biblical Literature), and over 10,000 people attend, you can always find something interesting and thought-provoking going on.

The highlights for me were likely two fascinating panel sessions studying Pope Francis and ecclesiological interpretations of Vatican II, themes which are of course deeply intertwined. As this is the 50th anniversary of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and the synod has played such an important role in recent Catholic discourse, Francis’ vision of and role in the church were the focal points of many of these reflections.

Prominent theologians Massimo Faggioli (St. Thomas University), Gerard Mannion (Georgetown), Peter DeMey (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium), and Philadelphia’s own Maureen O’Connell (LaSalle), along with others, discussed Francis’ undeniable popularity, reading of the council, shifting priorities toward the marginalized, attempts at curial reform, style of governance, and perceived theological agenda, both in terms of his strengths and shortcomings.

After attending the talks, I took advantage of the famously good weather and walked up through the Gaslamp District to attend Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral, an architecturally beautiful building reminiscent of the city’s heritage as a Spanish mission. Being the feast of Christ the King, I was particularly struck by the line in the hymn “Praise to the Lord,” where we are called to “ponder anew, what the Almighty can do.” And to be perfectly candid, I was quite emotionally overcome by prayerfully engaging with those words.

I think everyone in the church would agree that something “new” is going on lately in Catholicism, realizing of course that not every believer would be in agreement whether this is an unqualifiedly positive development. And certainly, diversity-in-unity and novelty-in-continuity are tensions that need to be held together when studying and practicing the faith, never caricatured as opponents. But had I dared to imagine even two years ago that I would be living in Rome, working as a theologian under a Jesuit pope who is dominating the secular headlines on a daily basis, I would’ve either thought it the stuff of theological fiction at best, or a warrant for a padded cell at worst.

One of the most powerful elements of being Christian is living in hope. There has at least since the time of the Ascension been an eschatological dimension to our faith, a pregnant and anticipatory looking-forward, which we reiterate weekly in the creed. As St. Paul puts it, faith itself is “the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Advent is the liturgical season which most brings this pregnant expectation and the “already/not yet” to the fore of our daily life.

When Jesus told the disciples he was going away, and that they must wait for the day when he would take them to himself, he also said we as his followers already knew the way. Thomas, ever the realist and one of my favorite figures in all of Scripture, replies for all of us with a commonsensical response. “Dude, that makes no sense. If we don’t know where it is you’re going, how can we possibly know the way?” (I’m paraphrasing). Jesus doesn’t neatly and clearly map out the future for him, lucidly tracing the twists and turns of his life, or for the community of the church which will be both his Bride and his mystical Body. He rather instructs us to live with the uncertainty and to trust him, as he himself is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

A term that came up repeatedly in the talks on Francis, particularly about the synod, was “orchestrated chaos.” The conversations were messy, and confusing, and frightening to many parties, and it is certainly legitimate to admit that. So was Vatican II, along with the rest of the councils. But we live in hope and expectation that “all will be well,” as Julian of Norwich puts it. Our fears and doubts never discount our faith; they are not opposing powers on equal footing.

Thomas again is instructive here. When Jesus appeared to the others without him after the Resurrection, he responded by saying famously “Unless I put my hands in his wounds, I will not believe.” And yet the following week, where is Thomas? He’s there with the others again. He didn’t say to the group, “Why would I ever come back to be with you after you lied to me about this supposed event?” And the fledgling community didn’t say to him, “You doubt us? Good luck to you, buddy. You’re not welcome here any longer, bro.” (Paraphrasing again).

The scene we all know so well, where Thomas has the privilege of naming Jesus “my Lord and my God” would not have happened without either side simultaneously dwelling in both hope and unresolved, messy, confusing doubt! It is a testament to faith on the peripheries, to the Father’s rushing out to welcome back the traitorous son others want him to write off as dead, to the lost sheep wandering frightened (or perhaps with brazen overconfidence) by itself outside the fold. All themes so recurrent in this pontificate.

Christological monophysitism, the belief that Jesus was only divine without any real human nature, was denied as heretical centuries ago. Francis is perhaps awakening us to some dangers present in an implicit “ecclesiological monophysitism” in some quarters today.

Let us try to emulate his openness to finding the divine in the ambiguous and undetermined and the sometimes confusing in this coming season — where we wait to re-welcome the One who is mysteriously somehow both true God and true man.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.

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