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Pope Francis: A Symbol of Hope by Phileena Heuertz

My husband was practically glued to the television, taking in as much of the media coverage as he could. As I flitted about the house preparing for an out-of-town trip, Chris reported to me the quips and facts surrounding the conclave.

The last few days have definitely been historic. Even for those who aren’t Catholic, people of all faith traditions acknowledge the power and influence the Catholic Church has on society, culture and politics. So, when it’s time to choose a new pope, the world stops and takes notice.

For sure the Catholic Church has many shortcomings and much in its past to be ashamed of. But for all its faults, the Catholic Church can be admired for its fortitude. The church has not crumbled in light of its self-deception and sins—the Crusades, the Inquisition, and its most recent child abuse scandals, to name some of the most far-reaching. It has held together through that sordid history for more than 2,000 years and has attempted to be teachable and repentant along the way. The Second Vatican Council, which addressed issues between the church and the modern world, certainly reflects its ability to learn and grow.

The Catholic Church, with its glaring failures, reminds us there is hope for us. For each of us is not unlike the collective church. We too have sinned and fallen short. To try, and fail, and pick ourselves back up again, to journey in the way of faith, is hard enough on one’s own. Multiply that by a global congregation of over a billion members and one can’t help but admire the long-suffering and resilience of the collective.

Many people look to an imperfect church to be their perfect savior. But the Catholic Church was never established to save us. The church was established to point us to the one and only Savior.

Catholics will be the first to acknowledge their church is made up of imperfect people. (And let’s be clear—the leadership of the Catholic Church is made up of imperfect, predominantly white European men.) Many Catholics would like to see the church grow and change at the rate of its individual members. But, of course, the growth of the collective whole takes longer than its individual parts.

And so we wait and we hold onto hope that continued growth and change is still possible for the church.

And then there’s the election of a new pope—just eight years after the last election. And so many of us look to Pope Francis with hope.

I had to leave home during the height of the anticipation surrounding the conclave. I was giving a contemplative retreat when I heard the news: an Argentine Jesuit elected pope. Amazing. Unprecedented.

History in the making. It’s been more than 600 years since a pope resigned, 1,300 years since a non-European pontiff was chosen; and never before has a Jesuit been elected.

As a member of the order of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit), Jorge Mario Bergoglio represents a spirituality committed to contemplation and action in the world. And he represents a theology that acknowledges the salvific grace of impoverished persons. Many of the most renowned liberation theologians are Jesuits—and the Jesuit liberation theologians of Latin America have been a particularly challenging witness to church leadership.

And then he does the unimaginable. A member of the order founded by Ignatius of Loyola, he takes the name “Francis,” after Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order. In this choice, the pope embraces the prophetic spirituality of his namesake.

St. Francis willingly rejected wealth and status and chose a simple life deeply devoted to people of poverty. Pope Francis reflects similar commitments—refusing many of the luxuries and privileges ascribed to his standing in the church as archbishop and cardinal and now pope.

St. Francis was committed to interfaith dialogue long before there was an accepted consciousness for such a thing. At a time when the leader of Muslims and the leader of Christians were at war with one another, Francis risked his life to befriend the Sultan. The new pope has demonstrated a similar commitment to respect and to befriending people of other faiths—a necessity in today’s pluralistic world.

St. Francis was called to rebuild the church of his day—to cleanse it of the corruptions that had infected it. And the new pope is now in the most powerful position from which to do so today.

And so this Jesuit pope named Francis reminds us of our need for the so-called “other”—the poor one, and the one whose perspective on God and faith is different from ours. And in him we hope for continued church reform.

Will that anticipated reform meet all of our expectations? Certainly not.

Some will grow weary waiting on the government of the Catholic Church to progress in matters of social concern (while others will hope the church holds firm)—matters like ordination for women, marriage for the priesthood, birth control and gay marriage.

And others will lose hope that their church can be a church for them.

But we can take heart the Catholic Church has proven to progress during the course of history, on matters like freedom of thought, science and interfaith dialogue—albeit, too little too late for some.

And so, while many of us are heartened by the simple, humble new pope, others of us are struggling to hold onto hope.

May this historic event be a reminder that while we can look to individuals and institutions to be a source of hope for us and our world, individuals and institutions will always fail us to some degree.

But we do not have to lose heart because there is a God who never fails us, who is in the business of redeeming, reconciling and healing the world.

And so, we hope.

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