The People of God and the Bishop of Rome

Pope Francis and CrowdFirst impressions are important.  I must confess that when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election was announced, my initial response was:  who?  Since then I’ve been sifting through the many news reports (and memes) about Pope Francis as the media, secular and Catholic, work to make this new pope known to the world.

Francis’ first address as pope was quite interesting.  For instance, I imagine many people would have said that the purpose of the conclave was to give the world a pope, but Francis had a different take:

“You all know that the duty of the Conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother Cardinals have come almost to the ends of the Earth to get him . . .  but here we are.”

Francis identified himself as the Bishop of Rome and accepted the warm welcome of “the diocesan community.”  He also described that community in a particular way, as a bishop and people journeying together.  This calls to mind one of Vatican II’s central metaphors for the church: the People of God on pilgrimage.  Lumen gentium, the council document that describes the church’s life, begins not with the church itself, but rather with the mystery of the triune God. Then, rather than turning immediately to a description of the church’s hierarchy, the council used the metaphor of the People of God to describe how Christ and the Spirit call the church to be one people, each of whom are priest, prophet, and king.  In these three characteristics the People of God receive their shared identity and discover their common mission. Further, a people on pilgrimage are “in process” and thus are marked by hope, trust, and prayer rather than by triumph.  It is only after describing the mystery of God and of God’s whole people that the document proceeds to articulate the particular roles of the church hierarchy.

Francis turned to prayer several times throughout his first address.  After leading those gathered in prayer for Benedict XVI, he asked:

“Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world that there might be a great sense of brotherhood. My hope is that this journey of the Church that we begin today, together with help of my Cardinal Vicar, be fruitful for the evangelization of this beautiful city.”

Here again, Francis’ focus is on the city—the people—of Rome.  His mention of the Cardinal Vicar, assigned to assist popes with their ministry to the Roman people, underscores that he is thinking particularly of the local church.  Finally, before offering his own blessing, Francis asked for the people’s blessing:

“And now I would like to give the blessing, but first I want to ask you a favor. Before the bishop blesses the people, I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me — the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer — your prayer for me — in silence.”

Lumen gentium echos again in these words.  Francis’ desire for the people’s blessing calls to mind the priestly role of the People of God, and identifies him first as part of that people; his ministry is from, for, and with them.

Francis’ first address was not without mention of the universal church.  He indicated that the Church of Rome “presides in charity over all the Churches.”  Nevertheless, even in this statement, he accented the church at Rome as whole rather than highlighting his particular role.

It is, of course, far too early to tell what theologies will mark Francis’ papacy; past behaviors are not necessarily predictors of future actions.  Yet Francis’ first speech may point to an ecclesiology of the People of God,  a sign that he perceives himself as a companion who travels with others “in love” and “mutual trust.”