We have underestimated the effects of the long papacy of John Paul with its “extension papacy” of Benedict XVI. I call Benedict’s papacy an extension of John Paul’s because he was for so long the right hand man of John Paul, and his obvious successor and “keeper of the flame.”
Together they guided the church for thirty five years. That’s a long time. It is an especially long time in a world which is changing so rapidly. John Paul and Benedict were European popes and their perspective was naturally rooted in their experiences in Poland and Germany and the events of the Second World War and the Communist domination of Eastern Europe. Their spiritualities and understanding of the church were formed by these pressures as well as the Catholic culture of Poland and Bavaria.
Francis’ papacy is therefore a shock to the system. We’re still reeling–not only from the resignation of Benedict XVI, but also from the end of an era. We feel like the days of John Paul and Benedict are over. Something new is happening in the church. Many in the church do not remember any popes but John Paul and Benedict. For converts, like me, they were my popes. I don’t remember Paul VI and John XXIII. Francis is therefore a new factor and an unknown and unpredictable papa. He comes from a different culture and was formed with a different perspective and different priorities. We have to take time to stop, look and listen.
But is he really so new? I don’t think so. Over the last week I have made an effort, as part of my research for doing a talk at a conference on the New Evangelization, to read John Paul and Benedict’s thoughts on evangelization and the church. Francis is not saying anything new. He’s not only continuing their teaching, but he is showing us how to put it into practice. His style is different, his emphasis is different and his perspective is fresh, but that is only to be expected from whoever was elected to the office. In my opinion he needs to be more careful in his public statements and more precise in what he is saying, but the basic content of his message is consistent and in continuity with John Paul and Benedict.
My ambition, therefore, as I continue to learn about Francis and learn from Francis, is to read and re-read the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Their teachings shed light on Francis’ papacy and will reveal the theory behind the actions and words of this most prophetic of popes. I encourage you to do the same. Follow through and do your homework. Read Benedict’s three encyclicals on the theological virtues. Read John Paul’s pastoral letter Into the New Millennium–and his Redemptoris Missio. These documents–and others from the past continually illuminate the present and guide us into the future.
We are used to the tension and swing of politics–in which a right winger is elected followed by a left winger. We’re used to the back and forth of politics in which no clear progress is made because there is not clear mandate of what should be done. We’re used to the constant tug and controversy of politics in which sides are taken and battles are fought.
This is not the way the spirit leads the church. It is true that we fall into camps of progressives and conservatives and we fight amongst ourselves, but this is the way of the world. This is not the way of the Spirit. Instead the spirit leads with both progress and continuity at the same time. Each papacy should be a step forward for the church, building on what has gone before and explicating and unfolding step by step the Spirit’s overall plan for the Church and the world.
This is also how we should grow spiritually in our individual lives. We grow and advance, building on a secure foundation and reaching out to learn and grow from what we have learned and add more wisdom and understanding as we grow hearts and minds that are ever open and searching for the fullness of truth.
Francis is not a break from Benedict and John Paul, but a flowering and opening out of all they taught. Therefore to rightly understand the present and move confidently into the future we need to look to the past.
UPDATE: Tom Perna has written along similar lines here