A Journal of Catholic Reflection for Southern Africa

Volume 34 No 2
August 2017

EDITORIAL: SOME PERSPECTIVES ON THE THEOLOGY OF POPE FRANCIS

Editors: Nhlanhla John Mhlanga and Susan Rakoczy

The election of a Catholic pope is an intense moment that grips the whole world in suspense. St Peter’s square is filled with hundreds of thousands of Catholic pilgrims who await the announcement of a new pope. The restless pilgrims look to the chimney from which the signal of the conclave’s imminent decision will be given. Black smoke dampens their spirits; their bodies tire but their resolve remains unshaken. The white smoke finally brings the good news, but the suspense is not alleviated. It is only when the windows open and the words proclaimed ‘Annuntion vobis gaudium magnum: habemus papam’ that the people rejoice. The gaudius mangum anticipated in the announcement fills the square as throngs of Catholic pilgrims and curious tourists celebrate this announcement. This was the scene on March 13 2013 when Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name Francis, becoming the church’s 266th pontiff.

The announcement of a new pope in the Catholic Church is not simply the change of leadership of the church’s one billion followers; it is also in many ways the ushering in of a change in emphasis in the life and mission of the church. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church different popes have laid theological and/or pastoral emphasis on one issue or another.

Different popes have come to be known and remembered for their unique contribution in the teaching, mission and life of the Church. Pope Leo XIII for example is identified by the first social justice encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Pope John XXIII is often associated with the Aggiornamento of the Church. It was in his papacy that the church opened itself up to the winds of change and embraced a mutual exchange with the ideas of the day and the world. Pope John Paul II, popularly proclaimed Santo Subito (make him a saint now) after his death, was well known for his pastoral outreach. In his papacy he undertook more pastoral trips to various parts of the world than all his predecessors combined. He was particularly close to the youth and developed the popularly known Theology of the Body, a comprehensive and integrated vision of the human person. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a theological scholar and professor, left a lasting theological heritage with his many writings and theological reflections. His books Jesus of Nazareth, amongst many others, sought to discern the face and the person of Christ. This theological endeavor was to be Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s contribution and legacy to the Church of Christ.

Pope Francis is in no way different. He comes to the highest office of the Catholic Church and in ways particular to the person that he is, makes a unique contribution to the life and mission of the Church just as his predecessors have, in their own ways. Since his election in March 2013 Pope Francis has undertaken to transform the culture of the church.

In the four years of his papacy, Pope Francis has written one encyclical, two apostolic exhortations, new dicasteries (for Promoting Integral Human Development, and for Laity, Family and Life), created 56 new cardinals, 19 of them coming from countries that have never before had cardinals. He has visited 23 countries and made 12 visits within Italy. In the digital age he has 3.6 million Instagram followers and 33 million Twitter followers.

He has also set some unprecedented examples. He decided to stay in the Hotel Casa Santa Marta instead of the Papal palace. He established a council of nine cardinals who were to become his close advisors in matters relating to the reform of the curia and the governance of the entire church. He made a choice to celebrate the Holy Thursday service in the detention centre Casa del Marmo where he washed the feet not only of men, but broke with tradition, by washing the feet of two women and two Muslims. His first visit outside of Rome was not a diplomatic one but one of closeness to the suffering, to Lampedusa where he went to honor the migrants who had died trying to cross the sea. The constant question in the face of all these and other ‘out of the box’ examples that Francis has offered in the past four years is what Dr Moss captures in the apt question in his article ‘A Profile of Pope Francis: What Makes Francis tick?’ This simple question cannot be answered in the few pages of this issue; however the articles make an effort critically to examine Francis’ thoughts and ideas and to uncover their place in the tapestry of contemporary Catholic life, mission and theology. This issue is dedicated to a discernment of the contribution Pope Francis makes in the church.

The first article by Allan Moss, ‘A Profile of Pope Francis’, sketches the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio from his family background, Jesuit formation and ministry, life and ministry as a bishop, cardinal and finally as Pope Francis. Mercy as a virtue and a trait of the Christian heart has a central place in the teaching and mission of Pope Francis.

In his homily at Lampedusa the Pope said, ‘I felt that I had to come here today, to pray and to offer a sign of my closeness’ (Francis 2013). This closeness that he spoke has become the particular characteristic of Pope Francis. His great appeal is in this capacity to be close to the experiences of the people, in their diversity, a life lived as an example of Christian charity and openness. David Holdcroft’s article ‘Migration and the Renewal of the Church: The theology of Pope Francis Through the Lens of Forced Migration’ makes an attempt to map out the nature and meaning of this ‘closeness’ that Francis brings to the church and its theology. The article notes that one of the greatest contributions Francis has made in the church is his particular focus on the most vulnerable, the culture of indifference, those on the periphery, the outcasts and those in the most difficult of human circumstances.

Inaku Egere in his article ‘Mercy Model of Ecclesial Communication and African Culture of Witness: Perspectives on Pope Francis’ Visit to Africa and Its Impact on Evangelization’ tries to capture the heart of this message of mercy and what it means for the evangelizing mission of the contemporary Church.

The last two articles in the issue focus on a most pertinent subject not only in the life of the Church but in the world. Pope Francis’s flagship and only encyclical receives due attention in the article by Nontando Hadebe ‘The Cry of the Earth Is the Cry of Women’: Ecofeminisms’ Challenge to Laudato Si’ and Susan Rakoczy’s ‘The Mission Spirituality of Laudato Si’: Ecological Conversion and the World Church.’

Nontando Hadebe brings out the issues of justice or lack thereof that are presented in Laudato Si’. She goes on to show how the patriarchal structures and attitudes that perpetuate the injustice against ‘our common home’ simultaneously sustain the injustices against women. There is an existential dialogue between the cry of the earth and the cry of women, who both plead for justice. Susan Rakoczy discusses the idea of ‘ecological conversion’ espoused in Laudato Si’ and places it in the paradigm of mission. The question of the meaning of ecological conversion and how it relates to the Global North and the Global South, to intersections of gender and ecology and how a reading of Laudato Si’ presents us with a mission spirituality through which we can enter into dialogue with the world, form a central part of this article.

In the preparation of this issue, the first person who was approached to contribute an article was the late Fr Charles Ryan SPS. Fr Charles had been a moral theology lecturer at St Joseph’s and at the time he was requested to write for this issue he was living in Ireland. He was the first to excitedly agree to write an article and according to correspondence with him, had already started putting together some thoughts. It was with great sadness that we learnt of his untimely passing in October 2016. This issue is dedicated to Fr Ryan and his ministry both as a priest and a theologian.

References

Francis, Pope. Monday 8 July 2013. Homily: Visit to Lampedusa. Lampedusa. Available at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2013/ documents/papa-francesco_20130708_omelia-lampedusa.html, accessed 28 August 2017.