Pope Francis, elected just a year ago this month, has already made a strong impression around the world, and not just with Roman Catholics. Time magazine named him its person of the year, as did the Italian edition of Vogue. At World Youth Day in Brazil, he celebrated mass for more than 3 million people on the beach at Copacabana.
Why all the celebrity? He is the first non-European pope in many centuries. The man selected by the red-robed cardinals who assembled at the Vatican last March to elect a new pope was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Mario Jorge Bergoglio. Already in Argentina he was unusual. Known as “the people’s archbishop,” he spurned the episcopal palace and chose to live in a simple apartment elsewhere in the city, taking the bus to work. He wore the garb of an ordinary priest and walked often among the poor.
As pope he has continued this same humble style. On the day of his election, as he spoke to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, he called on them to pray for him and to bless him before he blessed them.
As in his home country, he has chosen to dwell not in the luxurious papal apartments but in a simple room in the Vatican guesthouse, where he has breakfast every morning with the other residents and conducts a brief prayer service for them. He has given up the red papal shoes and elaborate garments, favoring a simple white cassock. Disdaining the official Mercedes limousine, he uses a 20-year old Renault with 190,000 miles that was given to him by a retired priest, or for longer trips, a modest Ford Focus.
Pope Francis has called for “a poor church for the poor.” He removed a German bishop, known as the “Bishop of Bling,” who had spent more than $40 million on his episcopal residence and office complex. And he has introduced major reforms at the Vatican Bank and in the Curia (the Vatican administration), with the promise of much more to come.
The pope has the unsettling habit of picking up the phone, without any secretarial intermediaries, and calling people who have written him about their problems. He keeps in touch with old friends in Argentina, including Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he wrote On Heaven and Earth, based on a popular TV series similar to America’s God Squad.
Francis has also reached out to Muslims and adherents of other faiths, as well as atheists, holding a long written and oral dialogue with a leading Italian nonbeliever.
On Maundy Thursday during Holy Week after his election, Pope Francis held the traditional foot washing in a very nontraditional way. Instead of washing the feet of 12 selected priests in a Vatican chapel, he went to a detention center for juvenile offenders in the city and washed the feet of 12 inmates. The group included two females and two Muslims — again, a highly significant symbolic action.
Lutherans haven’t always felt kindly toward popes, and the Reformation began, of course, as a protest against the papal teachings and practices of that time. But some recent popes have elicited admiration, for example Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) — the body that made so many Protestant-like changes, such as celebrating mass in the languages of today rather than in Latin.
Pope Francis seems to be getting the same reaction. ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton said of him in an interview shortly after her election, “He seems like a real straight shooter.”
Indeed, the pope’s pronouncements often sound like something a Lutheran might have said. In his first homily after being elected pope, he proclaimed: “The only true glory is in the crucified Lord. We can build many things, but if we do not witness to Jesus Christ, it doesn’t matter.”
He remarked in a later interview: “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”
The church at its heart, he said on another occasion, is not an institution but a “love story.”
Serious differences remain between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, but there may be more commonality than we are used to thinking of. In the very name that he chose for himself, Francis, the new pope invoked the memory of one of the most universally beloved figures in Christian history, Francis of Assisi, who gave up a life of privilege to minister to the poor. There are probably many Lutherans who have a statue of Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds in their backyards, a potent symbol of the unity of God’s creation.
Just a short while ago, Pope Francis named 19 new cardinals, largely from outside Europe. He told them not to regard this as a promotion, but rather an invitation to further service, one that “requires you to broaden your gaze and open your hearts.”
This is in accord with what is probably, among the many titles of the pope, the one that the current pope prefers: “Servant of the Servants of God.” Lutherans can agree that that’s a good definition of leadership in the church.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers