Including Pope Francis, there have been five popes during my lifetime. I was born some months prior to the closing of the Second Vatican Council in December 1965, and during my elementary school years at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in rural Blakeslee, Ohio (on the most western edge of the Toledo Diocese), I remember seeing a portrait of Pope Paul VI on the wall of the cafeteria. I also recall seeing as many photos, portraits, and busts of the late President John F. Kennedy at some of my relatives’ houses. So it’s perhaps not surprising that I imagined becoming a priest or a politician someday, as well as a number of other possible careers. When I was an undergraduate student at Saint Petersburg Junior College and then the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, I majored in political science (minored in history), leaning more in the direction of law school and politics. At the same time, I worked full-time for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department as a correctional officer. Theology continued to be of interest to me, though, especially as one of my professors had some of us students read Gaudium et spes and other documents from Vatican II, as well as some encyclicals by Pope John Paul II, including Laborem exercens. Thus I became enamored with moral theology, especially as I wrestled with a number of issues, such as war and violence, and went on, after resigning from the sheriff’s department, neither to seminary nor law school, but to divinity school and graduate school in order to become a theological ethicist. And the writings of these two popes, plus others, including Benedict XVI, have played an important role in my teaching and scholarship on many topics and issues.
So, when Benedict XVI resigned, and the UK’s Catholic periodical The Tablet invited a number of theologians to share what we hoped for regarding the next pope (before we knew who it would be), I perhaps selfishly wrote about things related to what I do and care about (most of it was published in The Tablet, March 16, 2013):
As a lay moral theologian, I hope the next pope will be pastorally sensitive, intellectually informed, and genuinely guided by the Spirit and example of Jesus Christ. Servant of the whole Church, the coming Bishop of Rome should work collegially with his fellow bishops and others worldwide. May he, like St. Peter, humbly say, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal’, and just as the Apostle realized that the gift of the Holy Spirit can be ‘poured out even on the Gentiles’, may the new pope hospitably engage in constructive dialogue with all others without prejudging ‘anyone profane or unclean’ (Acts 10:26, 28, 45, NRSV). His priorities should include addressing more clearly the grave evils we face rather than only the intrinsic evils, though the two sometimes overlap. Like his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he should continue to inspire Catholics and others to be greener and to care for creation, but he should also encourage Catholics in nations such as the U.S. to be more magenta rather than partisan red (Republican) or blue (Democrat). He should remind Catholics that we are, first and foremost, followers of a Lord who said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ (Matt 5:9). He should enable Catholics to participate intelligently in the Mass and to connect what we experience and do there with everyday life, thereby informing and forming us to ‘love and serve the Lord’ by defending human life consistently against all threats, including unjust war, toxic wastes, abortion, euthanasia, climate change, the international and domestic proliferation of weapons and firearms, lack of access to affordable healthcare, and more. Indeed, may he continue to promote respect for the dignity of all human life, including those who are guilty of serious crimes against the innocent, so that more is done both to care for victims and to establish restorative criminal justice systems without the need for capital punishment.
When I attended a symposium on nuclear and integral disarmament at the Vatican in November 2017, I was blessed to meet Pope Francis briefly during an audience. A lot has happened during these five years of his papacy, and I think he has done much good–above and beyond what I imagined a few weeks before his election. I pray that he (and we) are blessed with many more years.