As youth from around the world gather in Rio de Janeiro for next week’s World Youth Day festivities, some in the secular press seem keen to play a highly misleading and greatly erroneous game of “compare the popes” between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The latest to play this game seems to be the religion section of The Huffington Post, where they are keen to point out that Pope Francis came and went from Castel Gandolfo this past Sunday in a Ford Focus, as opposed to Benedict XVI’s Mercedes. It seems to be part of what we might call a developing “meme” within the secular media that Benedict represented “pride” while Francis is the humble one. As is usually the case when dealing with the secular press and the pontificate, the reality of the matter is something very different. The admiration that these two men, Benedict and Francis, have for one another is real and authentic. Many informed readers may know that Francis was the runner-up on every ballot of the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict XVI, and it is rumored in some circles that Bergoglio was himself the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger, though we’ll never know whether there is truth behind that. No one needs to give Pope Benedict any lectures on humility, of course, because leaving the pontificate under the circumstances in which he abdicated was itself a testimony to his humility. He did not have to go, he could have allowed those around him to run the Church’s day-to-day affairs while he entered into a long and slow decline and we looked on. Instead, Benedict chose not to put us through all of that, perhaps because he went through it himself in the last years of the reign of Blessed John Paul the Great. It is no accident that Francis’ personal gift to Pope Emeritus Benedict after his election was an icon of Our Lady of Humility.
It appears that what the world is seeing are the outward appearances rather than the inward faith of both of these men. As has already been written in this space, Pope Francis is right to emphasize greater simplicity and even austerity to some degree not only among the clergy, but among all the faithful for the sake of the Kingdom of God. However, it cannot be emphasized enough that Francis is not Benedict, and Benedict is not Francis. In many ways, they are two men with entirely different charisms. Benedict seemed to see it as his duty to promote the truth and beauty of the faith, and he has been a bulwark for truth and for the beauty of the Church his entire life as a priest and a theologian. Making sure that people better understand that truth and that beauty has been his life’s work.
Pope Francis, by contrast, is first a pastor, and he has all the academic credentials Benedict might be familiar with, but he is more of a social person. He doesn’t do well working alone and prefers the company of others a great deal of the time by his own admission. He eschews anything that might be considered “special treatment” and he doesn’t like living alone. Those realities are going to make him a different kind of pope than Benedict, or even John Paul II, because the pope normally lives alone, surrounded only by his household staff and private secretary. Clearly, Francis couldn’t have it that way.
The secular media can’t really be expected to understand that different people within the Church have different callings and different gifts. The pope-the Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter-is no different in this regard. As Benedict XVI himself has pointed out, being the Supreme Pontiff is a ministry within the Church, just as being a priest or a deacon or a bishop is a ministry, or even lectors, acolytes, ushers, or musicians. Anyone can exercise ministry within the Church according to their gifts, but some ministries require that the Sacrament of Holy Orders should be received before the minister can carry on their ministry with validity. Anyone upon whom the Sacrament of Holy Orders has been conferred-a deacon, priest, or bishop-brings his gifts to his ministry. The pope brings his specific gifts to the Petrine Ministry, and each pope has different gifts.
Pope Benedict brought years of theological learning, teaching, and writing to the Chair of Peter, and that meant that he could produce catechesis, books, pastoral letters, and encyclicals that could teach the faith in a way that no one else could do. When the time came for the “reform of the reform” of the Second Vatican Council to come to a sense of fulness, Benedict was the perfect person to preside over that process. As the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Holy Office) for many years and a theological adviser at Vatican II, Benedict knew who to trust when it came to reforming the liturgy and he respected the fact that he was, in many ways, finishing work began by his predecessor. Because Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, was by the side of Blessed John Paul II for so many years, he knew exactly what the Great Pope was trying to accomplish in reforming our worship.
Pope Francis comes to the pontificate with a different set of tasks before him. As Benedict saw his great mission as reforming the liturgy, Pope Francis’ great contribution will likely be a reform of the Roman Curia, the offices and ecclesiastical officials (mostly bishops) who run the day-to-day affairs of the universal Church. As Benedict was well-suited for liturgical reform, Francis may prove the right man for curial reform, because he reformed his diocesan curia with great efficiency and brought his clergy closer to the people they serve. He will likely try to do the same with the Vatican, and if Buenos Aries is any indication, he will prove to be a beloved leader even if his positions are unpopular, rather like Blessed John Paul.
The simplicity and austerity that he is displaying is in no way meant to “show up” his predecessor in the humility department. Instead, Pope Francis is likely trying to set an example for his brother bishops, as well as for the priests and deacons who serve under them. That example is not “we should live as paupers,” because the Pope certainly doesn’t do so, but that “we are only as great as the least among us.” Francis’ simple life is meant as a reminder that service in the Church is not about riding in the best motorcar, eating at the best restaurant, having the best seat at the concert or show, or the first place in line at the parish potluck supper. While there is no harm in those things by themselves, a leader of the Church should never expect those things. Instead, ecclesiastical ministry is about a life of service, prayer, love, and sacrifice, especially for the marginalized, the poor, and the excluded of the world. What’s more, all Christians, whether clergy or not, are called to minister to the very least among us in some way. That is the example that Pope Francis is setting as he moves forward with the reforms that the Holy Spirit is calling him to make.
It isn’t about trying to compare Francis and Benedict, they had different tasks, different gifts, and different goals. The media obsession with such a comparison shows instead that the secular world doesn’t care much for Benedict, which is actually evidence of just how good a pope he really was. Even worse, the media is painting a picture of Francis based on their image, rather than Francis the pastor, the Servant of the Servants of God.