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Some words stick with you longer than others for reasons hard to identify. One such word is “aggiornamento,” which I learned along the way in my Seminary education in connection with what Pope John XXIII wanted to accomplish when he convened Vatican II in the early 1960s. The word lodged in my mind: it’s kind of a cool-looking word and it’s fun to pronounce. But it’s also a theologically important word because it referred to Vatican II’s efforts to bring the church up to date, to open the windows of the sometimes stuffy Vatican and let in the fresh air of the mid-twentieth century. I am no expert in church history or the specific ins and outs of Vatican II but anyone who is even mildly well educated in such ecclesiastical matters knows that the effect and import of Vatican II were (and are) huge for the Catholic Church.
This word has come to mind more recently again when I listened to some of the utterances of Pope Francis. Whether or not he ever convenes a major church council to rival Vatican II, the new Pope has already opened up the windows of the Vatican again simply by signaling an openness to consider some contemporary issues in a new light. At this point so early into his papacy, I know about as much about Pope Francis as most people, which is to say not a lot. But so far I am very intrigued with this man.
As was true of Karol Wojtyla before he became known as Pope John Paul II, so also with Jorge Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis: I had never heard of him before (I had to Google my way to the correct spelling of his name just now!). In my life so far there was only one person who went on to become pope of whom I had heard before and that was Joseph Ratzinger before he became Benedict XVI and the main reason I had heard of Cardinal Ratzinger was because of how offended I had been at some of the things he wrote when he was the doctrinal pit bull of the Vatican. In one essay he wrote some years before becoming pope, Ratzinger refused to acknowledge non-Catholic churches as “churches” worthy of that term. He instead coined some term to refer to the distant relationship all Protestant churches had with the true Church of Rome but stopped well short of allowing for the thought that Protestant believers were full sisters and brothers in the faith and in Christ’s worldwide Church.
True, when I grew up I knew people who doubted whether Catholics were really Christians–I still sometimes run into people who seem to think that you can play Christianity off against Catholicism as though they represent two different belief systems. That’s not very ecclesiastically friendly either so I am not trying to accuse Cardinal Ratzinger of something the likes of which does not exist on our Protestant side of the aisle. Still, Ratzinger’s comments were off-putting and in their own way hurtful to me as a Protestant Christian and as a pastor.
But you get the feeling that Pope Francis is unlikely to say or embrace such things. He clearly wants to see other people at eye level, not from an ivory tower of academia or of the Vatican itself. He has signalled a willingness to talk with people and with groups who have felt at best marginalized by the Church (and at worst who have felt eternally condemned by the Church). All in all he has so far felt like an aggiornamento kind of a person, one who knows it’s the twenty-first century and who wants to represent a Jesus who is like the one who once walked around Palestine: a man who was a magnet for those who felt shunned by the religious establishment rather than someone who repulsed those same people and groups through harsh pronouncements and defensive doctrinal postures.
Time will tell what this Pope will do and what ripples it will have in the larger church world. Thrilling though the new Pope’s openness appears to be, he will have difficult waters yet to navigate when he has to bring a larger orthodoxy to bear on the conversations that his own openness will likely foster. I recently read Wes Granberg-Michaelson’s new book From Times Square to Timbuktu in which, among other things, Wes reminds us of the coming clash between the parts of the Christian world where most Christians now live (the Southern Hemisphere) and the parts where Christianity has been in decline (Europe and North America), and many of those clashes will be doctrinal as well as cultural. Perhaps more than any single Christian group in the world, the Catholic Church has under its big tent all of those diverse groups of people such that a modern pope can expect as much static for being a retrograde doctrinaire sort of figure as an aggiornamento figure of grace and acceptance.
But I plan to pray that Pope Francis becomes a blessed person in the wider church, someone who will manage the tightrope walk that just is the Christ-like path of being full of both grace and truth. As Neal Plantinga has often pointed out, the evangelist John tells us that Jesus was full of grace and truth but he’s the only one who ever pulled off that balance perfectly! But insofar as we live in a world that either is too full of truth to be kind or too full of grace to have anything resembling standards, if Pope Francis wants truth and grace to be as balanced in his papacy as he can manage with the Spirit’s help, then that’s something worthy of all our prayers.