Franky and Johnny

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The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis I on March 13, 2013 strikes me as interesting  in that he makes me think of one of his predecessors, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (1881-1963) who became Pope John XXIII (1958-1963). Like Pope John, he comes across as a humble and personable man. In choosing his regnal name, Pope John commented “I choose John … a name sweet to us because it is the name of our father, dear to me because it is the name of the humble parish church where I was baptized, the solemn name of numberless cathedrals scattered throughout the world, including our own basilica [St. John Lateran]. Twenty-two Johns of indisputable legitimacy have [been Pope], and almost all had a brief pontificate. We have preferred to hide the smallness of our name behind this magnificent succession of Roman Popes.” (As cited in Wikipedia) As for Pope Francis, his choice of regnal name is inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi whom he admires as  “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days we don’t have a very good relationship with creation, do we?” he said. “He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man.” (As cited in Wikipedia)

Both men, long before they were respectively elected Pope, favoured ecumenism, that is forming better relations between Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Church and the Protestant World. To this end, Pope John convened the Second Vatican Council: one of its stated aims being to extend a “gentle invitation to seek and find that unity [in Christendom] for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to his heavenly Father.” (As cited in Wikipedia) Pope John died before the Ecumenical Council (Vatican II) was completed, but his successor, Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) continued the effort opening dialogue and establishing better relations with Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Churches through the 1960s, which resulted in an end to their disputes of the past and co-operate in addressing issues of poverty and development in the Third World and to pray for Christian unity. Before his election, Pope Francis built relationships of friendship and trust with Evangelical Protestants in Argentina. Luis Palau, an Argentine born Evangelical Protestant living in the United States, credits Bergoglio’s (Pope Francis) approach to relationships with Evangelical Protestants as one of “building bridges and showing respect, knowing the differences, but majoring on what we can agree on: on the divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, his resurrection, the second coming.” (As cited in Wikipedia) Like his predecessors Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, Pope Francis has fostered better relations with the Anglican and Orthodox Churches also, having been described by the Anglican Bishop of Argentina, Gregory Venables, as a “devout Christian and friend to Anglicans.” (As cited in Wikipedia)

Another point of comparison between Pope John and Pope Francis is their unfaltering efforts to build better relations between Christians and Jews. In 1935 the future Pope John was made Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece. While he held this office, he helped Jewish refugees escape the Nazis. In convening the Second Vatican Council, another of its stated aims was a revision of the Roman Catholic liturgy and teachings which unequivocally repudiated the inherent antisemitism that had prevailed over the centuries. Jews are no longer held as “Christ killers” in Roman Catholicism. On this issue, Pope John is quoted as saying the following:

We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people nor recognize in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads. Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew, or shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh. For we know what we did. (As cited in Wikipedia)

As for Pope Francis, he too has, throughout his ministry before his election as Pope, maintained good relations and co-operation with the Jewish community.  Abraham Skorka, of the Latin-American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires observed “unlike John Paul II, who as a child had positive memories of the Jews of his native Poland but due to the Holocaust had no Jewish community to interact with in Poland as an adult, Pope Francis has maintained a sustained and very positive relationship with a living, breathing [Jewish] community in Buenos Aires.” (As cited in Wikipedia)

Where the similarity in comparison differs between the two men is that Pope Francis  is the first non-European to be elected Pope and the first Pope to come from the Americas. He is a Jesuit and as such, well educated in theological studies. The Jesuit Order in Latin America is associated with Liberation Theology, an outcome of Vatican II, notably in two conferences held by the Latin American Episcopal Conference (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano): the first held in Medellin, Colombia in 1968 and  the second in Puebla, Mexico in 1979. Liberation Theology is aptly described as follows:

Liberation theology proposes to fight poverty by addressing its supposed source: sin. In so doing, it explores the relationship between Christian theology — especially Roman Catholic theology — and political activism, especially in relation to social justice, poverty, and human rights. The principal methodological innovation is seeing theology from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed. (as cited in Wikipedia)

Pope Francis identifies with the moderate elements of this theology. He concurred with his predecessor, Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) in maintaining that Roman Catholic clergy were not to hold public office; however, it is from this perspective, consistent with the goals of Vatican II, launched by Pope John XXIII, that Pope Francis seeks to lead the Church in ministering to the impoverished, particularly in the developing world.

In reflecting on the personalities and aims set out by Popes John XXIII and Francis I it is encouraging to see their willingness to reach out to Christians outside the Roman Catholic fold and to lay to rest past prejudices held toward the Jewish people. It goes to show that the Church can examine its core doctrines and rethink its position. Where it lags in this respect is in its teachings on sexual morality. In spite of the reforms instituted by Vatican II, Roman Catholic teachings on matters of artificial contraception, fertility treatments, surrogacy and same sex relationships have not changed. The basis of these teachings rests in the Thomistic philosophy of natural law. This can be summed up in the following statement “Since each thing has a nature given it by God, and each thing has a natural end, so there is a fulfillment to human activity of living. When a person discovers by reason what the purpose of living is, he or she discover his or her natural end is. Accepting the medieval dictum “happiness is what all desire” a person is happy when he or she achieves this natural end.” (Thomistic Philosophy Page) The prevailing view in Roman Catholic teachings follows in that “Simply put, the male body is sexually made for the female body. Sperm are by their design oriented toward the egg the way that the eye is oriented toward light. Same-sex sex and any sex other than vaginal intercourse cannot fulfill the purpose “written” into our physical form.” (The Black Cordelias)

As Pope Francis I begins his papacy showing he is an amiable and personable man, one can hope he continues with his spirit of conciliatory outreach to those outside the Roman Catholic fold and seeks greater co-operation among the various faith communities toward alleviating  the hunger  and poverty that plagues so much of humanity. It is not likely Pope Francis is going to change the Church’s position on sexual ethics, but maybe, in the spirit of his outreach there can be at least a more conciliatory gesture offered to gay people. Time will tell.

Posted by Geoffrey and Mika

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