Pope Francis and the ways in which his papacy is distinct from those of his predecessors was the focus of a panel Tuesday composed of Boston College faculty, the president of Assumption College, and the executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity.
M. Shawn Copeland, professor of theology, moderated the 90-minute discussion, which started with a talk of how much media attention Francis has received. Much of this media attention has focused on the difference between Francis and previous popes, Copeland noted.
The difference between one pope and his predecessor is often deliberate-a pope that is seen as different is often elected in response to changing times. However, the basic substance of the papacy is still in place, said Francesco Cesareo, president of Assumption College and expert in Renaissance history.
“We’re beginning to see [Francis] grow into the role of the pope,” Cesareo said. “As we see that, I think we’re beginning to see much more continuity with his predecessors than I think we would have expected.”
An important difference between Francis and previous popes is his origins-he is the first pope from the global south. This difference has rejuvenated many Latino Catholics because they now have a pope they can identify with, said Maria del Mar Munoz-Visoso, the executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The panelists focused on how Francis empowers Latino Catholics to get more involved in their church. The Church in the U.S. is a church of many cultures. The Catholic Church needs to rediscover the diversity present in its midst, Munoz-Visoso said.
One of the problems with making progress is the issue of continuity within the Catholic Church, Copeland said.
Francis has taken to heart the creed of the Catholic missionary, emphasizing the need for clergy and ministers to go into the streets and meet people where they are. Francis sees the Church as a field hospital that has to deal with people where they are, said Richard Gaillardetz, professor of Catholic systematic theology.
“All of his predecessors would have emphasized the mission, but this is a pope that has brought something distinctive about what the Church’s mission looks like,” Gaillardetz said. “It’s a little more open, dialogical in its engagement with the world, and that gives it a little different focus.”
The way Francis dives into the depths of the world gives him a different avenue to raise issues, Copeland said.
Copeland then brought up the challenges the pope and the Church face in this moment.
The pope wants to make the Church feel alive again, Cesareo said. He sees this as a challenge, which is a different approach than the last pope took. Francis wants the Church to regain the relevancy that it lost in the last pontificate.
“Here is an individual who wants to breath new life into this church so that it has relevancy in this modern world,” he said.
Munoz-Visoso highlighted several themes that she believes will be a challenge for Francis. First, the widening disparity between the rich and the poor: Munoz-Visoso believes this society could become a place where people are no longer treated with the respect they deserve. Also, Francis is concerned with building a community where the common good is the goal, she said.
A third proposed challenge is that of the family, which is traditionally where catechism and religion are passed down.
“I think there is a genuine preoccupation in his mind for the wellbeing of the family as the cell of the Church and the transmitter of faith,” Munoz-Visoso said.
Francis is also facing the problem of reforming an institution that has a deeply rooted culture that is particularly difficult to change in a more than superficial way, Gaillardetz said. He also needs to face the challenge of engaging in dialogue with women from all backgrounds and cultures, he said.
Francis has realized that we need a new way of speaking about the Church, the Eucharist and baptism. He uses the idea of mercy to form an image of the Church, Cesareo said.
“Where John Paul was ‘Do not be afraid,’ where Benedict was ‘Faith and reason,’-I think Francis will be the pope of mercy,” he said.