With the election of Pope Francis, a relatively unknown person appeared center stage in the Catholic Church. A great deal is made about his “firsts” — the first Jesuit, the first pope from the Western Hemisphere. There is a great deal of curiosity regarding who he is and what kind of a pope he will be. People, it seems, are falling over themselves to find and interpret “signs” which will tell the world who Pope Francis is.
A bit of context might help. It is estimated that the median age of the world’s population is 28.4 years. Pope John Paul II became pope on 16 October 1978 — that is, 35 years ago. This means that more than half of the world’s population has known only Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a fairly well-known entity when he was elected pope in 2005. Thus, for more than half the world’s population, the election of an unknown entity to the See of Peter is something new. In the long run of the church’s history, it is not that unusual. But it is to us, and hence the curiosity.
The inauguration of a pope is a very important time. It happens relatively rarely and is filled with symbolism — some of which is easily recognizable and some of which may be more arcane to the average observer. I was present in St. Peter’s Square when Pope John Paul I was inaugurated as pope and bishop of Rome. The ceremony is moving and impressive. While each new pope will necessarily inject elements of his own personality into the ceremony of his inauguration, the ceremony is not ad-libbed by any means. It is not the personal show of any pope.
Because the inauguration of any pope is so highly structured and even orchestrated, if one is to search for “signs” and insights into the new pope’s personality and even agenda, those signs are going to be very, very subtle. They will be so subtle, in fact, that observers will come up with contradictory “signs.” Papal observers run the very real risk of being too clever by half. Nonetheless, a papal inauguration is by no means totally devoid of indications of what the future might bring. (The Vatican has released details of tomorrow’s liturgy (old/broken link: https://www.news.va/en/news/tomorrow-mass-of-inauguration-of-bishop-of-romes-p) on its news website.)
If I were to come up with a significant indication in the inauguration of Pope Francis, it would be the presence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. Since 1054 the Eastern and Western churches have not only been divided; they have all too often been hostile to each other. There has not been a patriarch of Constantinople at a pope’s inauguration or a pope at a patriarch of Constantinople’s installation for well over a thousand years. This is significant.
In a world where the Arab Reawakening continues to cause great alarm among Christians in the Middle East, Pope Francis’ decision to postpone his first public audience in order to meet with the Catholic patriarchs and major archbishops of the Eastern churches is also significant. This might be an indication that Pope Francis is concerned about the unity of the church. It might be a sign also that he is concerned about the catholicity of the church in a way that we have not seen for a while. Yet in all this, only time will tell.
It is still probably better to participate in and observe Pope Francis’ inauguration as a believer rather than as a detective.