There is much on the internet for the anniversary analyzing this unique pope and his unique ministry. See for example, see this fascinating interview with Rocco D’Ambrosio, author of Will Pope Francis Pull It Off? The Challenge of Church Reform.
But there is also a very personal dimension for each of us. In honor of Pope Francis’s election, four Pray Tell writers share what Pope Francis means to them and how he has affected their prayer life, discipleship, theological work, and ministry.
I know this will sound exceedingly odd, but I experienced the moment when Pope Francis first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s four years ago akin to the moment when I first saw the face of my newborn son.
The reason for the odd parallel is this: about nine month prior to March 13, 2013, in the summer of 2012, I felt a sudden, unexpected, deep call to prayer. This call to prayer was extraordinarily specific; and it was for a person no one at that point in time knew. In the preceding weeks, I had witnessed Pope Benedict XVI’s increasing frailty and wondered what kind of “formation “ for the Papal office a successor would benefit from. The answer was simple: No one is ever openly and explicitly formed for that role.
The sudden call to prayer I experienced was related to that realization. I committed to praying daily for the Holy Spirit to prepare, in the Spirit’s own mysterious ways, the next person for this daunting, complex, highly visible, and crucially important ministry in the Church. And so I began to pray, with no idea how long this praying would have to happen, nor with any inkling of whom I was praying for. But pray I did.
When Pope Benedict XVI suddenly resigned and the conclave began, I grew increasingly curious: Whose face would I see on that balcony? Would I appreciate the one I had been praying for? Would my prayers for his preparedness for this ministry be answered?
When Pope Francis finally appeared on the balcony, and most especially when he bowed his head to ask for the peoples’ prayers, I had my answer. As I stretched out my hands in prayer toward the TV screen on which I was following the happenings at St. Peter’s, I gave thanks to God for this Pope. I have prayed for Pope Francis ever since. He has taught me that I am a part of the Papal ministry in the life of the Church.
From the day of his election and initial pastoral presence on that balcony, Pope Francis has been a source of encouragement to me in multiple, mutually influential ways. His humble, compassionate pastoral practice, coupled with the content of his two apostolic exhortations and one encyclical, have altogether supported and challenged my personal contemplation, pastoral action, and professorial priorities.
Indeed, last year one of the initiatives that grew out of my annual eight-day silent retreat was to use the resources of my endowed chair to put on a semester-long series of events related to “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home. “ In response to Francis’s appeal to all people of good will, I conceived plans to use resources in my endowed chair to engage a wide swath of professors and others across Vanderbilt University’s highly diverse campus.
To my amazement, within the first week of the new academic year came a call for grant proposals to participate in a University-wide yearlong engagement with climate change. I could not but gratefully marvel at the Spirit’s movement in all this. I did get a grant and participated in a yearlong interdisciplinary faculty seminar in addition to executing three events of my own – a panel, a three-day retreat, and a two-day symposium.
About my preaching: I am discovering a new quality of freedom both to continue and grow the prophetic (lovingly challenging, critical) content, as well as to craft delivery through suggestive images, questions, and appeals to the wisdom within the assembly. The “principle of mercy “ (to invoke Jon Sobrino’s term) is affirmed and goaded on within me in the process from week to week, including my interactions with colleagues, students, spiritual directees, prisoners, and others who populate my life in Nashville. This cannot but make me a better theologian and professor.
One closing example: In crafting a new course for this coming fall, “Theologies of Salvation “ (to be taught in a local prison—twelve inmates and twelve Vanderbilt Divinity students), I knew I had to include a “mercy dimension. “ One practical way assuring this: adopting Jon Sobrino’s No Salvation Outside the Poor among the required readings.
When the white smoke went up, I was sitting at the bar of the restaurant where I was employed as a waiter, writing my dissertation. I rushed out, picked up my daughters from the babysitter and got home before Bergoglio appeared at St. Peter’s. My eldest was nearly 5 at the time and I remember her being transfixed as we heard “Franciscum, “ and as the new pope asked us to pray for him. She continues to pray for him!
I remember speaking with a close friend shortly thereafter and we agreed that this election was profound for a Church still reeling from the abuse scandal and the newer “Vatileaks” crisis. When I returned to that restaurant for my shift a couple of days later, a cook – who had hung a holy card of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini over her prep station – said to me, with tears in her eyes, “this is bringing me back to the Church.”
I teach at a Catholic university where fewer than 50% of the students check the box “Catholic.” Presenting them with magisterial texts that break with their presuppositions gets them thinking outside of their stereotypes about the Church. This is the case for Quadragesimo Anno and St. JP II’s “Address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences.”
It has been delightful to discuss Pope Francis in the classroom. His speeches and letters challenge many stereotypes, but more importantly he is a profound witness to the lived faith and the students love him. He reminds them of Jesus. Because of that, he is able to challenge those who see the Church as closed in on itself while at the same time challenging those committed Catholics who tend to see migration and climate change as non-essential Catholic issues. This is a real boon in the classroom.
Four years ago, I was walking on a treadmill as part of a weight loss and fitness program at Duke University when the election of Pope Francis was announced on the news. As the newscaster finally uttered his name, I nearly fell off the treadmill. Men and women who had gathered around the television monitors and who knew that I was a priest all looked to me and said, “What does this mean? “ I was speechless at first and then, sweaty and disoriented, I finally muttered, “It means everything. This is unprecedented. “
As someone who works with college-aged students every day – students who are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives – I know that the leadership and ministry of Pope Francis in these last four years have given them (and dare I say, me) conviction about the gospel. In my ministry as the Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Providence College he has reminded me again and again of how embarrassingly simple living the gospel is – we often complicate it by our own rationalizations, fears, and insecurities. Love each other; forgive each other; walk with each other. It really is that simple. I have found myself in these last four years repeating those mantras over and over–in my preaching, in my teaching, and in my counseling: love, forgive, walk with each other.
We have enough in our world that makes our lives complicated, confusing, and stressful, but the gospel is not one of them. It really is that simple. When we realize that, we can step off the treadmills of our own lives that too often leave us disoriented and exhausted. Pope Francis reminds me day in and day out to step off into something new – a simple gospel message to love, to forgive, and to walk with each other.