Far too much has been written, by friends and foes alike, about how Pope Francis is different from his predecessors. What is much more interesting is what he and his two most recent predecessors have in common. All three of them knew that the social order was changing, that the old security was gone for good, and that a secular age was rising. All three knew that theirs was the duty to find a new relationship between Church and state, and that it would be a more contentious stance, putting an end to the cozy relationship of old that had provided prosperity and security for both ecclesiastics and political leaders.
The principle difference between popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis is in their professional background. John Paul was a philosopher, Benedict a theologian, and Francis a pastor.
John Paul was pope when I reengaged with my Catholic faith, and when I started to take an interest in what was written by a pope. Even while I was still far from understanding his arguments, I was deeply impressed with the strength of his criticism of positions that I had never questioned. His juxtaposition of the culture of death with the Gospel of life was my starting point for becoming critical of the way our social order works. His writings challenged my previously uncritical view of modernity as an age of progress towards an ever-better life. It showed that the Church had to be different, that the Church needed to be a stumbling block. All the while, he was so much more engaged with public affairs and so much more present on the world stage than any pope before him.
Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still a young professor in the 1950s, began to write about what it means for the Church to be in the minority, what it means to hold a Christ-centred worldview in a secular age. His call for a church that is no longer entangled in the affairs of the world came very early. Already in 1958, the young Joseph Ratzinger stressed that henceforth, Christians had to adapt to being a minority, being a small flock. However, it was not to be an isolated remnant, but a minority that is actively involved in the salvation of all by showing a distinctively different way of living in and looking at the world.
And now Pope Francis challenges us to move outside of the security of old Church structures and be joyful messengers of the good news to all people. Finding the strength to be this requires a deep understanding of philosophical worldviews and theological doctrine, but it also requires a pastoral attitude that is affirming and attractive. This is what he has given to the Church. It takes nothing away from the teachings of his predecessors, but it takes it into the world, and the world is listening to him.
Next weekend, I will speak at the Chapter of Mats of the Secular Franciscans in the BC Coastal Region, and the theme will be “Being a Franciscan in a Secular Age.” We will take a look at the early Franciscan history, but then we will take a look at Pope Francis’s “Joy of the Gospel.” It reminds us that we must take our faith into the world and make Christ present in the world, through the celebration of the sacraments and in the proclamation of the gospel.
So the message remains the same, but what has changed is the place of the Church in the social order. It is time to accept that the old security is gone, and it is time for us to adapt to being missionaries in a messy world. Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis clearly saw this, and they all taught the same thing. Put Christ at the center of your understanding of the world, and then engage the world by being a witness to the power of this faith, as philosophers, theologians, and pastors.