A Pope Francis Generation?

Rhett Engelking

Let me begin by describing an experience that I had while in Washington D.C. during Easter week. This was at a series of conferences designed so that faith-based advocacy groups could promote their most recent initiatives to fellow advocacy organizations and interested members of the public. I was tabling on behalf of the Franciscan Action Network, and we were promoting our current campaigns on gun safety, immigration reform, and the climate crisis. I was also there to promote Franciscan Earth Corps as an emerging young adult initiative. Beside me at our table stood a statuette of St. Francis and piles of informational brochures. In the week preceding, I meticulously reviewed the key aspects of all of our campaigns. I was prepared to give the most professional and widely accepted account of our mission objectives and hopefully find ways to network with those who showed interest. Amid similar larger organizations with equally noble causes, it is particularly difficult to garner attention to work of Franciscan social justice. The paid staff of our organization comprise less than 10 individuals and we represent a very particular collection of Roman Catholics and Protestants who adhere to the lifestyle of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi. Imagine my surprise when a constant flow of interested people rarely permitted me to leave the table. Further, the single most pervasive topic that visitors brought to our conversations: the election of Pope Francis. 

Everyone wanted to speculate about Pope Francis. Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, and Muslims alike were all fascinated by this Jesuit cardinal from Argentina who took the name of the patron of our organization. This tangible spark of possibility had apparently supplanted memories of the Reformation, Inquisition, or even the Crusades! Cardinal Jose Bergoglio was not even on the radar of most Catholics, yet nearly everyone I met was suddenly an expert on papal affairs. I quietly professed as a Secular Franciscan two years ago, and suddenly this identity became an opportunity to exchange anecdotes on Pope Francis’ latest subversive act of humility. Even those who had completely written off the Roman Church confessed to being thoroughly astonished by the choice. Suddenly unlikely allies joined our Franciscan justice circle and were attuning themselves to what was developing.

“It appears that a Jesuit cardinal has had a late conversion and he has finally affirmed a calling to the Franciscan lifestyle. Seems he has the organizational mind of a Jesuit and the heart of a Franciscan… Let us pray for all our sakes that he doesn’t have the organizational mind of a Franciscan and the heart of a Jesuit.” This was the ongoing joke that week and it expresses the cautious optimism toward this pope of historic firsts. (First non-European pope, first Jesuit pope, first to wash the feet of women, etc.) And yet there was very clearly some other brand new phenomenon teased by a Jesuit’s choice of the “Francis (of Assisi)” moniker. Could a very necessary and very particular type of change be about to take place? What caused the conclave to look outside of Europe for leadership?

Cardinal Jose Bergoglio’s notes from the 4 minute conclave speech that he delivered to the College of Cardinals indicate that he acknowledged a Church that was in need of transformation. Many speculate that this speech is what secured the papal seat for Bergoglio. He used it as an opportunity to criticize the Catholic Church as being too “self-referential.” His vision of the Church was a “fruitful mother” who “is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”  Many of those who witnessed the transformation that was ushered in by the vision of John Paul II, have identified themselves as members of the “JPII Generation,” and have pointed to the papal character to describe their individual evangelization.  Such a vision was referenced in the conclave speech, and this alone may be enough to embolden a new generation of the faithful toward a lifetime of apostolic work. It is not unimaginable that the election of a reformer to Bishop of Rome, when coupled with the universal appeal of his humble approach, might define a movement of Roman Catholic Christians in a profound but emerging “Pope Francis generation.”  But could the Spirit’s call to transform run even deeper?

There are 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world, making it the world’s largest single church, and yet when Pope Benedict XVI left the church, it was still struggling to keep up with global transformation. In 1951, Joseph Ratzinger was ordained and first consecrated Eucharist. Four years later, Ray Kroc took over the McDonald’s Corporation and now people consume more than a billion McDonald’s hamburgers every month. Archbishop Ratzinger was appointed and consecrated in 1977. That same year, Steve Jobs launched Apple Computers, Inc. and now Apple sells over 1 billion application downloads each month Cardinal Ratzinger was named prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. XVideos, the single largest pornographic site on the World Wide Web, was launched a full 16 years later and now receives over 4.5 billion unique page views a month. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI was installed pope and wrote and wrote an encyclical “God is Love.” Facebook went worldwide that year and now has a global community of 1.05 billion users. This new shape of our global culture has formed at a feverish pace. It is no secret that some of those who identify as members of Christ’s Church have grown to treasure pseudo-interpersonal relationships, technologically engineered foodstuffs, and seas of extraneous information. Such rewards become addictive. They stimulate release of the neurotransmitter dopamine and reshape, if not our hearts, most certainly our brains. Jesus urged his followers, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” If self-reference is the hallmark of the narcissism of the addictive personality, perhaps more must be indicated by Bergoglio’s assessment of a self-referential Church. The movement from earthly self-reference to heavenly Wisdom is a conversion of heart.

When Pope Francis characterized the Church as “self-referential,” he may have been characterizing a Church which up till now has expected the champions of orthodoxy to deliver the faithful from those fears that accompany an increasingly complex information age. He was no doubt looking forward to a transformation age. Another famous call to transformation was delivered nearly 800 years ago to a little man in the Umbrian region of Italy. While praying within the crumbling confines of the little San Damiano Church, St. Francis of Assisi heard Christ deliver a commission, “Francis, go repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin.” Through the lens of history, we can clearly see that the “repair” Christ commissioned was neither accomplished when Francis rebuilt that small Church stone by stone, nor was it accomplished in his miraculous life. For many it took the hope surrounding the election of a new pontiff to remind us that the call to “repair [God’s] house” has remained dormant to much of the global consciousness. Pope Francis may indeed be riding atop a wave that has been accumulating for centuries only now appearing when it could not be ignored.  Papal elections might beckon some faithful beyond self-reference to deep, mystical conversion experiences. (What a wonderful gift of the Spirit that would be!) This blog, though, is not really for those people. Of course if they exist at all, they are certainly welcome to share in what develops. 

This blog will provide a contemporary Franciscan voice for those who require an ongoing conversion amidst an increasingly complex 21st century world.  The Greek word used by St. Paul to describe this type of conversion is metanoia, and it derives from the Ancient Greek words μετά (metá) (meaning "beyond" or "after") and νόος (noeō) (meaning "perception" or "understanding" or "mind"). Beyond simply changing one’s mind, metanoia implies a lifelong transformation, a conversion of heart and mind. While much can be derived from St. Paul’s epic fall from the horse or Francis’ encounter with the leper, context clues tell us that St. Paul struggled with a thorn in his side (2 Cor 12:7-10) and Francis carried a love/hate relationship with Brother Ass (his body) right up until his death.  Mere philosophical exercises or sentimental stories will not supplant a very real call to integral transformation (body, mind, soul, spirit). The “geographical and existential peripheries” will be explored here. The hope above all is that the message will remain simple and relevant, especially amid a world that is expanding in complexity quicker than our ability to keep up. Any hope, any answers that you find, may appear new, but will likely have been around since the beginning. After all, the simple Word (Christ) has been around since the beginning (John 1), beckoning us all

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Mt 11:29-30