A Man Named Francis and My Theological Journey

Yesterday, on March 13th (3-13-13), a new Pope was elected to shepherd and lead the more than one billion Catholics on this planet - no small feat indeed!

This pope is the 7th one of my lifetime, beginning with Pius XII, a very controversial figure, beatified, even though widely and I believe rightfully criticized for failing to save our Jewish brothers and sisters in Rome during World War II. My favorite pope is the first one I can remember, John XXIII, who was elected as a compromise and "caretaker" choice. He was not expected to live long - which he didn't - but in the few years he was pope, he threw open the windows of the Church (aggiornamento) and ushered in the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, known as Vatican II, which instituted the first major changes in the Church since the Reformation and the Council of Trent.

I was just in grade school at the time that John XXIII lived, and he endeared himself to many. As a child I read his personal journal, Journal of a Soul, a beautiful story of humility and sanctity, that even at my own tender age was so evident to me. I can still recall radical changes made in the liturgy during the turbulent 60's and its aftermath. I lived through watching nuns who taught me, awkwardly transition from full habits, to modified ones which exposed their legs and hair - often to their discomfort. One of my teachers had been a model prior to her becoming a nun - and boys would often whistle to her through the fence! In the early 70's, as a college student, I was swept into the the excitement of the post-conciliar era, and studied theology with other young women, believing that changes, such as the ordination of women, were literally right around the corner. I will not hide that though I was raised in a very traditional environment - Hispanic and Catholic - I embraced change and more liberal perspectives than my own family and found them very refreshing. I was blessed to have been taught by Adrian Dominican nuns - very forward thinking and progressive - they threw open the doors of my vision and understanding in the early 70's. After graduation, I went to a Jesuit University to pursue the study of ministry and continued to be cracked wide open.

Fast forward to 2002, when I resigned from my teaching position, after two and half decades of teaching theology and working in Campus Ministry, totally demoralized by where the Church seemed to be, and where it was going. I felt out of sync, and it seemed to me, that it was only fitting I step aside and let others who were younger, and more conservative, take up the mantle of educating another generation of students.

For 40 years I did not care much who was pope. I found none of them inspiring and felt none of them spoke to me...

Here I was, very highly educated, with a certification in ministry and both masters and doctoral degrees in systematic theology and spirituality, and at times my views were ignored or dismissed by clergy who could not match my level of education. As an a department head for eighteen years and as a campus minister as well - I was left out of the decision-making process by male heads and even once was asked to go fetch coffee for the priests and men who sat on the Campus Ministry team. This was circa 1977...

I've studied many spiritual traditions over the years - and have since found myself equally at home in any church, temple, or mosque that is a house of God. While I was studying for my doctorate as the only Catholic lay woman amongst Protestant ministers, I remember one of them saying, "Once a Roman, always a Roman..." And so yesterday, as I sat waiting for a group of Episcopal friends to share Centering Prayer in a very warm and inviting Episcopal church, I marveled how in all these years I have not left my own Church. Truly, once a Roman, always a Roman... Who I am and what my background is - is deeply embedded in me and in my DNA, or as a dear friend once noted, it is my "default setting."

I came home just in time to watch the most spectacular white smoke pour out of the chimney over the Sistine Chapel; a new pope had been elected. And as I waited along with perhaps more than a billion other souls to find out who this new pope was, I found myself profoundly moved by the experience.

Cardinal Bergoglio emerged having chosen the name Francis - a name that had never been chosen by an incoming pope. Was it Francis of Assisi (it was) - or Francis Xavier, a Jesuit like himself? In the end, it does not matter, he embraces the essence of both. This new pope represents many firsts - a Latin American, a Vatican outsider, and so on. Already he has eschewed many things - sitting on a throne, riding in the pope limo - and choosing a simple wooden pectoral cross...

This new pope is ideologically conservative. He does not share my theological views. I do not expect any change in regards to the Church's teachings or women's issues - though I can very competently argue for them theologically - but I do believe he is a pastoral man and for the first time, since John XXIII, I feel hopeful. If all he does is deal with the curia and scandals of abuse in an appropriate manner, it would signal a clear departure from business as usual...

Thirteen years ago this very month, I was in Rome for the Holy Year. During that trip I visited Assisi, and wept at the grave of St Francis. I have always been profoundly moved by his story and felt a special connection to him. I believe he was instrumental in one of my first awakenings and mystical experiences.  In a vision Francis was asked by Christ to rebuild his Church - literally the crumbling church of San Damiano, though this was also somewhat symbolic of the larger Church.

Now another man named Francis, steps forth. Perhaps he too, will begin to rebuild a Church that has been bleeding members and eroding confidence for decades. He asked for prayers before he gave his own blessing. I willingly give him mine, for the task he has at hand, is not for the weak or faint of heart. But for the first time in 40 years, just a few days before the beginning of spring - hope, in my heart, springs eternal.

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