What is happening in Rome amounts to nothing more than a seismic shift in how we view the papacy.
Pope Francis wades into the crowds to shake hands with people. Pope Francis calls his dentist and his newspaper stand in Argentina to tell them that he will not be keeping appointments. Pope Francis phones the Chancery in Buenos Aires and announces that it is Father Jorge calling. Pope Francis walks the short distance through the streets of Vatican City rather than ride in a limousine. Pope Francis decides not to move into the papal apartments, but instead will live in the Vatican guesthouse.
All of a sudden, we’re looking at a different view of how the pope acts. He seems to be more accessible. He reaches out to kiss babies and jumps out of his popemobile to comfort an invalid. He speaks off the cuff rather than from a prepared text. (When was the last time you saw that!) He waves with one hand rather than the traditional two-hand European gesture.
The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is changing the papacy’s style. Even his security forces have to adapt to his spontaneous movements. (See story on Page 36.)
When he was first elected, the new pontiff announced himself as the new bishop of Rome. Technically that is who the pope is. As bishop of Rome, he also is recognized as the universal head of the Catholic Church, just as St. Peter served as the authoritative leader of Christians once the Lord had been risen.
The Holy Father is the first among equals. He is the one to whom all other bishops, and indeed all Catholics, look for interpretive rulings about Church teachings.
Pope Francis appears to take a pastoral rather than a heavy-handed authoritarian approach. He preaches strength with tenderness, in imitation of the Lord he serves. He recommends the same approach to politicians, as witness to his advice to the president of Argentina.
But the biggest difference in papal style will be his insistence that the Church is a Church of the poor and for the poor. What exactly that means in practical terms will be played out in the coming years of his pontificate. It will disturb some and please others. It is going to make a difference.
While the papacy will seem different, it essentially remains the same. The pope is regarded as the supreme pontiff regardless of whether he wears red shoes or the ermine cape favored by Benedict XVI. The words of Francis carry the same weight as did the words of Pius XII or Leo XIII.
But it will look different and sound different. It’s a sign of life that is breathed into the Church by the Holy Spirit. The Church is always changing, and yet it always remains the same.
Benedict XVI’s timing of his resignation could not have been better. As we saw in the photos of the historic meeting between Benedict and Francis, the pope emeritus is frailer and less capable of carrying out the office of the papacy. And a changing of the guard at this time in the liturgical calendar certainly seems appropriate.
A new pope has been installed in time for Holy Week and Easter Sunday, the time when we Christians relive the suffering, death and ultimate triumph of Jesus. How fitting that as we rediscover the light of Christ and appreciate anew His new life, we have the visible signs of a renewed papacy to shed further light on the Good News.