In Fellini’s 1972 film Roma, the pope appears as a kind of giant head bathed in splendor, emitting rays of glory intimidating some, inspiring hope and adoration in others. His mere presence overwhelms everything; he speaks not a word. Satire? Perhaps, but not too far off the mark. At the height of the ultramontanist fervor in the nineteenth century, the Roman Jesuit review Civilita Cattolica calmly affirmed that “when the pope meditates, God is thinking in him.” Certain bishops and theologians seemed to view the “Vicar of Christ” as a prolongation of the Incarnation. A popular devotional booklet, attributed to Don Bosco and bearing an imprimatur, tells us that “the Pope is God on earth. Jesus placed the Pope above the prophets, above the Precursor, above the angels. Jesus put the Pope on the same level with God.” Practically speaking, the adage “no salvation outside of the church” became “no salvation outside of submission to the Vicar of Christ.” Closer to the present, a friend of mine who served in the papal household of Paul VI told me that when the pope was passing by he was preceded by a bell-ringer warning those present to lower their eyes and not dare gaze on the Sovereign Pontiff.

Vestiges of this mentality still exist in certain circles. This is why the resignation of Benedict XVI and the rapid election of Pope Francis came as a shock to many. There were, however, previous signs of a change of perspective in the church’s self-image. The most striking was, in my opinion, the very underappreciated penitential ceremony celebrated by John Paul II at St. Peters on the first Sunday of Lent 2000. The official missalette of the papal Mass and penitential act had, on its first page, a reproduction of one of the panels of the Holy Doors of St. Peters: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” The look of Jesus in this image is stern and sad; a tear falls from one of his eyes. It is a look of disappointment, of reproach, of one determined to go it alone even if abandoned. Peter is shattered, ashamed, humiliated, disgusted with himself. He can’t believe what he has done. Nor can the maidservant in the background, who perhaps represents humanity and who simply cannot make sense of it all. She appears puzzled and sad. In the ceremony itself, it is no longer question of acknowledging the “faults of certain sons and daughters of the church” but a recognition that, if the church is a communion of saints, it is also a community of sinners: “a solidarity in sin also exists among all the members of the people of God—the bearers of the Petrine ministry, bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.” The first-named among sinners are the “bearers of the Petrine ministry.” This, in itself, represents a total reversal of perspective.

It is also much more attuned to the Gospel narratives. On the shores of Lake Tiberias, Jesus offers to Simon, son of Jonas, the possibility of reaffirming his love and his desire to follow his Master. He is not addressed as Peter, solid as a rock, nor is he rehabilitated as such. It is only by his tears and repentance that Peter found mercy. The risen Christ does not confer upon him a power of authority but rather the vocation of a shepherd called to guide his flock on the way of truth.

There has been a gradual demystification of the papacy. How could the “Vicar of Christ,” who prolongs the incarnation, resign? The fact that Pope Francis was elected so quickly is an indication that the College of Cardinals recognized and approved his vision of the papal office, that a collective awareness already existed that the church needed to recover its transparency, recognize its sinfulness, and present its essential truth with humility and simplicity.

Aside from the very endearing “Fiorettis” which have sprung up, there are certain very significant aspects of the early acts of Pope Francis which give great hope. The very fact that he constantly refers to himself as simply “the bishop of Rome” situates him among his peers and not over and above them. The formation of a commission of cardinals from all over the world to assist him in the care of the church is another sign of a preoccupation for collegiality. In his sermons Pope Francis does not talk down to anyone and includes himself when he calls for conversion. At a general audience on May 29, the Francis remarked, “In those who compose [the church] there are flaws, imperfections and sins. The Pope has his as well—lots of them! But the beautiful thing is that we become aware that we are sinners, that we find the Mercy of God.” His understanding of the role of a shepherd is a response to the call at Lake Tiberias. His vision of a church that reaches out to all, especially to the marginalized and rejected, instead of endlessly contemplating itself is a much needed breath of fresh air.

Will there be structural changes? It is too early to tell but this does not seem to be a priority for Pope Francis. He has rightly pointed out that the real changes have to come from our hearts before they can be translated into exterior structures—and this is a long-term process. One could argue, however, that structural changes could provoke and facilitate a change of mentality and reassessment of values.

Another consideration. The specific role of the Petrine ministry is to conserve the church in unity of faith and charity and to restore this unity when it is disturbed. This cannot be done by dictums; it is through charity that unity is maintained and restored. This implies a great respect for the multiplicity of charismas and situations. The Bishop of Rome can set the tone, but fraternal respect for the needs of others, for opinions that might differ from ours, for options we ourselves choose not to follow—this depends on all of us: we are the church. We have always had, and always will have, opposing factions within the church, and, inevitably, we ourselves will personally take sides. Do we wish to “triumph” over triumphalism, to convince those who do not think as we do? Do we scorn traditionalists whose charisma might be to remind us of the legacy of grace, truth, and beauty deployed in the church down through the centuries? Or those whose forms of piety differ from ours? Might they not remind us of values we tend to minimize? Are we willing to learn from those with whom we do not agree? This is not easy. When St. Polycarp and Pope Anicetus clashed over the date of Easter, they resolved their differences with the formula “Unity in the essentials, diversity in the rest, but in all things charity.” St. Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “We must love both those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.”

Whatever the subsequent developments in the pontificate of Pope Francis might be, one thing seems certain: The concept of the papacy has already been seriously revised, so that it would be unthinkable to return to the way this office was exercised in the past. That, in itself, could have immense consequences at all levels of ecclesial life.

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.