The text of the Holy Father’s address to the cardinals this morning is available. And it is charming. It is a simple speech in its vocabulary and construction, yet it seems pregnant with signals as to the way his petrine ministry will proceed.
Many of us have been struck by Pope Francis’ apparent desire to be his own man. His name, so novel yet so Catholic, is the strongest sign of that. He is not to be seen as a disciple of John Paul II, or Paul VI, or John XXIII, or Leo XIII, or even Benedict XVI. In fact, it seems he is not even to be labelled as a disciple of St Ignatius, the Jesuit founder. He is Peter with a large dollop of the saint of Assisi. While one cannot rule out that he is including reference to the Jesuit St Francis Xavier in his choice of name, it seems clear enough now that he is very much in the mould of St Francis of Assisi: the simpler dress, the simpler transport, the greeting of people, the encounter with Christ as central.
Neither, however, is he dismissing his predecessor. Far from it. Note first this lovely passage from this morning:
I extend an especially affectionate thought, filled with gratitude, to my venerable predecessor, Benedict XVI, who, during the years of his pontificate enriched and invigorated the Church with his teaching, his goodness, guidance, faith, humility, and his meekness, which will remain the spiritual patrimony of all. The Petrine ministry, lived with total dedication, found in him a wise and humble interpreter with his gaze always fixed on Christ, the Risen Christ, present and alive in the Eucharist. Our fervent prayer will always accompany him, our eternal memory, and affectionate gratitude. We feel that Benedict XVI lit a flame in the depth of our hearts, a flame that continues to burn because it will be fanned by his prayers that will continue to sustain the Church on its spiritual and missionary journey.
It is a fulsome and touching tribute. But are there some real hints here for us to note? The emphasis on the Petrine ministry – he is to be Peter first. His gaze fixed on Christ – the centrality of the personal encounter with Christ that Benedict XVI emphasized so strongly. Christ present and alive in the Eucharist – is this that start of a focus by him on the liturgy? The flame lit by Benedict in our hearts, and fanned by Benedict’s continued prayers – he seems to confirm Benedict’s future hidden life, but also his continued influence on the Church. Time will tell.
Let us never give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil tempts us with every day. Let us not give into pessimism and let us not be discouraged. We have the certainty that the Holy Spirit gives His Church, with His powerful breath, the courage to persevere, the courage to persevere and to search for new ways to evangelise, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Christian truth is attractive and convincing because it responds to the deep need of human existence, announcing in a convincing way that Christ is the one Saviour of the whole of man and of all men. This announcement is as valid today as it was at the beginning of Christianity when the Church worked for the great missionary expansion of the Gospel.
Again Pope Francis mentions the Devil. This is what hampered Benedict the teacher – the constant obstruction of his divine mission by the demonic forces within and without the human fabric of the Church. Pope Francis seems intent on being a spiritual warrior, an exorcist. And here too he signals a commitment to the New Evangelization, an evangelization not only of the weaker members of the Church, but the whole world. He wants to make disciples of all nations. Coupled with his intention to confront the Devil at every turn, this missionary enterprise looks set to be in the classic Catholic mould: conversions and baptisms, not only the social service that has dominated modern missionary work. With wheaten bread must come also the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven.
Dear Brothers, have courage! Half of us are old: I like to think of old age as the seat of wisdom in life. Old people have wisdom because they know they have journeyed through life – like the aged Simeon and Anna in the Temple. It was that wisdom that allowed them to recognise Jesus. We must give this wisdom to young people: like good wine that improves with age, let us give young people this life’s wisdom. I’m reminded of what a German poet said about aging: “Es ist ruhig, das Alter, und fromm” – “age is the time of peace and prayer”. We need to give young people this wisdom.
He is not afraid to be old even in the midst of an ever more vigorously youthful Church. Age carries experience, and experience reflected and prayed upon brings wisdom. He has this to share, as had Benedict. It will be good wine, the vintage of the Lord.
I commit my ministry, and your ministry, to the powerful intercession of Mary, our Mother, Mother of the Church. Beneath her maternal gaze, may each one of us walk and listen to the voice of her divine Son, strengthening unity, persevering together in prayer and giving witness to the true faith in the continual presence of the Lord.
He emphasizes Mary yet again, an emphasis seen both in word and in action these last two days.
Pope Francis might not be the pope I was hoping for, but he seems like the pope we all need.
And still no mention of Vatican II…