What strikes Gesa Thiessen most about the first year of Pope Francis’s pontificate is his credibility as a Christian and as a Pope, precisely because he is practises what he preaches. Dr Thiessen, theologian and Minister of the Lutheran Church in Ireland, is happy to find that the breath of fresh air of last year may still be felt.
Practising what he preaches
Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen
A year ago, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope. He chose Francis as his name, reminiscent of one of the most loved saints in Christian history, a saint known for his Christ-like humility and commitment to the poor. Within a few months, this extraordinary pope has become hugely popular and loved throughout the world. He has surprised us through his words, gestures and his different style. Indeed, the breath of fresh air which was felt a year ago has not ceased.
His aim of reforming the Catholic Church has begun. Of course, there are central issues such as women’s ordination, obligatory celibacy for clergy, same sex unions, etc. about which he has said little and which yet will need to be addressed. This will, and realistically cannot, happen overnight.
What has changed, however, is not only manifested in certain reforms which are already underway but in the whole ecclesial atmosphere. At last one feels again that change and new developments are possible, that theological debate is welcome, that theologians no longer need to live in fear that they will be silenced when they say what they think and urge for reforms. The atmosphere of repression, fear and silence has been transformed into a sense of renewed openness, hope and even joyfulness, not least through the joyfulness which exudes from the pontiff himself. In some sense the spirit of Vatican II and its intentions of reform seems to make itself felt again, although, of course, in another era and different contexts than the 1960s.
Maybe, what matters above all is that people recognize that this pope lives what he preaches. This sounds rather simple but it is precisely this aspect which makes him credible and convincing both as a Christian disciple and as pope.
The role of the papacy has been a bone of contention in Christian history and in ecumenical discussions. More often than not popes did not live lives which resembled the life and teachings of Christ. In fact, the opposite was often the case and it is no coincidence that the split of the church in the sixteenth century coincided with some of the most corrupt popes in history.
The reason why Pope Francis has gained such popularity and is loved by so many Christians, is the fact that people recognise in him not only the leader of the biggest Catholic Church, but that he is someone who truly lives out of a humble faith. He does not pretend, he does not try to place himself above others. Rather he conveys that he, like all other believers, has struggled with life and faith and simply tries to live his faith as best he can. In this way he comes across as a truthful person and a true Christian. Indeed, through his actions, words and style, Francis manifests something of that saint whose name he chose. May he continue to cheer us up and surprise us and may his work in reforming the Catholic Church and his papacy continue for a long time.