Pope Francis has made quite the impression in his first week of Petrine ministry. He has already become endeared to many with his gestures of humility, including his bowing and asking the crowd’s blessing on election night, his paying his own hotel bill, his declining papal regalia such as a gold pectoral cross, and his spontaneous acts of greeting the crowds and blessing children, the sick, and even a dog. And he also announced his decision to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper in a Rome juvenile detention facility and wash the feet of some of the young detainees, rather than celebrating this Mass at the usual St. Peter’s Basilica or the Basilica of St. John Lateran. In all of this, the Pope’s ministry reflects the spirit of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.
In a way, though, Pope Francis is also starting off his ministry in the spirit of St. Peter. In Acts 10, Peter traveled to Caesarea to visit a Roman centurion named Cornelius, who was not a Jew but a Gentile. Upon Peter’s arrival, Cornelius fell at his feet and worshiped him. “But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal'” (Acts 10:26, NRSV). When Pope Francis bowed to the crowd on election night, I was reminded of this humble line from St. Peter.
In addition, although he claimed he was not supposed to closely interact with or eat with Gentiles, Peter said to Cornelius, his relatives, and close friends: “…but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28). This was a significant realization for Peter, who added, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone” who respects God and “does what is right is acceptable” to God (Acts 10:34-35). When Pope Francis practices and calls for caring service on behalf of the poor, the sick, the prisoner, and even all creatures in creation, this demonstrates that we should not assume beforehand that anyone lacks inherent dignity or any thing lacks intrinsic goodness. Same goes for Pope Francis’ promise of friendship, respect, and cooperation with men and women of other religious traditions or no religious tradition at all.
I hope Pope Francis continues in this spirit, and it will be interesting to see where else the Spirit leads. For instance, as Maureen O’Connell notes, for every Francis there should be a Clare, so I hope that the Pope will listen to and work with women, both lay and religious, not in some paternalistic way but in genuine partnership. Also, perhaps something new will be in the works, as some have noted, with our brothers and sisters, our sons and our daughters, and our friends and our neighbors who are not heterosexual.
I doubt such changes will happen soon in the Church. Time will tell. But so far Pope Francis is off to a good start, so I have some hope (and I am happy to see how many young people, including so many students, also have hope), which is a theological virtue gracefully infused by God’s Spirit, and thus not necessarily the same thing as optimism. Just as God’s Spirit surprised Saint Peter by leading him to the Gentiles and showing him that they too can be God’s people, so too perhaps God’s Spirit is gently nudging Pope Francis, the Catholic Church, and indeed all of us to be similarly surprised by the Other, through others, especially those whom we may least expect.