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Medisina at Politika by Dr. Rey PagtakhanPope Francis: Soul and saviour of the Church

 The Pope and the world

Habemus papam! We have a Pope!

Weeks before the news, the world’s media intensely focused on the Vatican – over 5,500 journalists gathered in Rome – as soon as then Pope Benedict XVI announced on February 11, 2013 his voluntary resignation effective February 28th and until his successor Pope Francis was chosen on Wednesday night March 13th and consecrated on March 19th. This community newspaper’s two recent issues (Pilipino Express, February 16-28 and March 16-31) had the following headlines, respectively: ‘Pope resigns’ and ‘Pope Francis elected.’

This columnist wondered and asked: Why this intense interest on the part of the media? What is at stake?

In my thirst for answer, I read relevant parts of the Catholic Encyclopedia and Wikipedia on papal history, reviewed the media reports and commentaries, and reflected on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s resignation’s message and Pope Francis’ first homilies. I now share with the readers of this column the results of my readings and reflection:

Pope emeritus’ decision to resign

Said Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to the cardinals following his soul-searching voluntary resignation from the papacy: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary — strengths which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

The Pope Emeritus himself called his decision “a decision of great importance for the life of the church.”

Vatican, Holy See and Apostolic See

Vatican City and Holy See are not the synonymous. The Holy See or The Apostolic See – which dates its origin to early Christian times – is the central government or episcopal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome with its bishop - the Pope - as the worldwide leader of the church. In contrast, “Vatican City State” – often times called Vatican City or simply “the Vatican” – dates its beginning only in 1929. Diplomatically, the Holy See acts and speaks for the Church and ambassadors are officially accredited to The Holy See, not to the Vatican City State. The Vatican City is the “capital” of the Holy See.

Physically, the Secretariat of State is the only body of the church governance – the Curia - that is situated within Vatican City. The other curial institutions are located in different parts of Rome, holding rights similar to those of embassies.

The Holy See continues even following a Pope’s death or resignation although it “operates under a different set of laws.” The College of Cardinals assumes the governing authority during the interim period.

The Church and the papacy

Catholic doctrine teaches the faithful that Christ is the head of the Catholic Church and whoever is the incumbent Pope is “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.” It is also catholic teaching that Saint Peter – who never carried the title of “pope” is the first pope. Thus, papal history spans from the time of St. Peter to the present day Pope Francis, who is now the Vicar of Christ on earth.

His immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, is Pope Emeritus – an honorary title first bestowed by the Church upon the latter’s resignation due to ill health. Its bestowal is instructive and welcome in itself.

Why? The history of the papacy, not unlike the histories of any nation and human institution, reveals a dark chapter. Time was when the Church witnessed conflicts between its leaders and challenges to papal authority so much so that two sets of popes, cardinals, governing bodies and papal residences were in place at one period of papal history, to give one example. Fortunately, these troubled times ended at the beginning of the second millennium. Gradually, the bright chapter of the papacy book opened its pages. Eventually, we have the modern College of Cardinals that recently saw the orderly selection of Pope Francis, as it has been during this millennium.

One of His Holiness’ first acts was to visit Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. This is the type of moment in papal history the Catholic flock and the world would like to cherish. The faithful also cherish, profoundly sorrowful and tragic as it was, the upside-down crucifixion of St. Peter who sacrificed his life for spreading the gospel of Christ.

Let me add, before I share some notable papal achievements in history, that recovery of papal prestige and renewal of its spiritual authority paralleled the end of papal temporal power and the severance of its ties from the policies of kings and secular governments. That the emergence of constitutional governments in many countries, Canada included, with separation of church and state entrenched, has served as well to strengthen the spiritual influence of the Church in the affairs of nations.

Notable papal achievements

One achievement is the signing of the Lateran Treaty – so named after the place where the political treaty between The Holy See and Italy was signed - created the Vatican City as a fully sovereign state “to ensure the absolute and visible independence of the Holy See” and “to guarantee to it an indisputable sovereignty in international affairs”.

It is important to underscore that the Treaty confers international guarantee to the “spiritual freedom” of the pope. At the same time, the pope has been “pledged to perpetual neutrality in international relations and to abstention from mediation in a controversy unless specifically requested by all parties.” Such awareness would help guide the world citizenry in their expectations of the papacy when faced with the situation.

Other indices of pontifical strengths during the more recent centuries include:

  1. addressing social justice issues and openly joining workers in their socio-economic struggle;
  2. asserting papal discipline over international missionary activity while increasing local decision-making of Catholic missions;
  3. making the church one for the entire world by involving and integrating bishops from all continents in leading roles in church governance;
  4. internationalization of the College of Cardinals by appointing cardinals from Asia, South America and Australia;
  5. simplifying church services and making them more accessible by allowing the use of native languages instead of Latin; and
  6. continuing ecumenical work and relationship with the Orthodox and Protestant churches and the Jewish faith and other religions.

What ails the Church today?

Even as we rejoice on the papal achievements, the Church has acknowledged as much – particularly when we read between the lines of the Pope Emeritus’ message to the College of Cardinals the challenges ahead: civil governance structure and intrigue; abortion, birth control and euthanasia; same-sex marriage and homosexuality; child abuse and sex scandals; priestly celibacy and women ordination; poverty and social injustice; conflicts, violence, war; racism, hate and ecumenical conversation; indifference and dwindling numbers of priests and flock; and missionary work, relevance of faith and focus on the Gospels of Jesus Christ. The 1.2 billion faithful worldwide are as concerned and watching in prayers.

How to heal and save

Even before the doors were locked, the windows sealed, and the 115 cardinals were sworn to secrecy in the inner sanctum of the Sistine Chapel, the world media were unanimously pre-occupied with who would likely be chosen to do the needed healing. Lists of a dozen cardinal-papable frontrunners were drawn based on the cardinals’ biographies and the media’s viewpoint. But the 5,500 plus journalists gathered displayed varied perspectives and priorities which are as diverse as the world’s peoples’ cultures, faiths, traditions, needs, levels of wealth, education, types of governments and expectations of the future. Hence, the surprise – although salutary and pleasant – when Papa Franciscus, not on the list of frontrunners, appeared at the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and introduced to the world.

Papacy’s historic firsts

Indeed, Pope Francis was not on the radar. First, the waiting world and faithful happily expressed their sentiments when white smoke billowed out of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel chimney amidst the ringing of the church bells that particular Wednesday night, March 13th. They knew the College of 115 Cardinals (67 of whom were appointed by then Pope Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus, and 48 by his predecessor Pope Paul II), locked in the Chapel and sworn to secrecy without access to telecommunication devices, had just signalled they have chosen one of them the 265th successor to the first Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Peter.

Then came the surprise when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio appeared on the balcony as the choice. Parishioners and non-parishioners realized they have in His Holiness – the second-born outside Europe, the first Argentine, the first from the Americas, the first Jesuit Pope, and the first in the church’s history to use the new non-composed name for his reign, Francis, in honor of the 12th-century Italian saint from Assisi who spurned wealth to pursue a life of poverty and has since been recognized as the First Reformer of the Church.

Pope Francis’ Message

Note that the new Pope’s first official act after accepting his election by his fellow cardinals was to choose his papal name. It is therefore, natural to ask and expect whether Pope Francis’ papacy will be a reincarnation of the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

Michael W. Higgins, CTV’s papal commentator from the Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, USA, has penned and anticipates with optimism that Pope Francis would, indeed, be the messenger who will reshape the papacy for our times. He based his optimism of Pope Francis in the context of his formation as a Jesuit priest with vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience; his tone and style of living; his first-hand encounter with the politico-socio-economic shame and democratic shine of his birth country; his experience and septuagenarian age spent serving parishes, dealing with church organization, and teaching at seminary; and his unyielding passion for social justice.

“He will bring a breath of fresh air to the stale and scandal-drenched corridors of the Vatican; he will generate hope in the hope-starved, and he will foster an expansiveness of spirit that will soften the critical stand of those who have despaired of the papacy’s capacity to move into the 21st century,” said Higgins.

Inspiring words and homilies

As always after a pontificate, a new page is opened in the history of the Church when a new pontiff assumes reign. Greeting the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, he said in his first public remarks: “You know that the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome. It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth. Thank you for the welcome.” The humility and simplicity are at once apparent.

Addressing the cardinals, His Holiness preached: “We can walk all we want, we can build many things, but if we don’t proclaim Jesus Christ, something is wrong. We would become a compassionate NGO (non-governmental organization) and not a Church which is the bride of Christ. When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we proclaim Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly. We may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, all of this, but we are not disciples of the Lord.

Said the Holy Father in his inaugural homily: “Today too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others.”

Soul and saviour of the Church

Vatican Radio reported that Pope Francis, upon his selection, has chosen to reiterate his Latin motto “Miserando atque eligendo” (translation: ‘“by having mercy, by choosing him”), which means “meaning lowly but chosen.” It is told that then 17-year old Jorge Bergoglio “was touched by the mercy of God and felt the call to religious life in the footsteps of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (Founder of the Society of Jesuits)” upon hearing the homily on divine mercy on the Feast of Saint Matthew in 1953.

This is reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi’s calling. Thus, it is increasingly more evident that His Holiness, ever inspired by the life and works of St. Francis of Assisi, would do as much as apply the Saint’s devotion and will to reform and renew the Church as she confronts the challenges ahead and spreads the twin gospel messages of peace and justice to world governments and the faithful.

Verily, Pope Francis reflects the soul of the Church. His humility and simplicity – his common touch – will move the Church. A true Parish Pope, the Church and the waiting world and flock can be assured, with our ecumenical prayers, that Pope Francis will save the Church for the sake of humanity.

Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan is a retired Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health and former cabinet minister and Chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Rights. He has been the recipient of awards and honours including the honorary Doctor of Laws and Doctor of Science, the Philippine Presidential Citation Pamana ng Pilipino Award, and the Governor-General Queen Elizabeth II Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals.