Archbishop Emeritus David Moxon offers an Anglican view of the Pope’s first ten years
‘Joy, Mission, conversion, diversity; Poor, inclusive, decentralize’ – these were the main words on the cover illustration from a copy of The Tablet, derived from Pope Francis’s early missive to the church and the world in 2014, only a year or so into his pontificate. These were the words he used to speak of his faith, his hope and his love. JOY, MISSION and CONVERSION, were among the larger type words to emphasize the Pope’s priorities. It seemed to me then that this kind of approach was surely God given, knowing the challenges and complexities that the church and the world were facing, and continue to face. This is also the message of Christmas, this is what God’s incarnation is like. The ‘Word’ made flesh; love incarnate looks and feels and sounds like this it seemed to me.
For many around the world, JOY was the most tangible sounding in the newly unfolding pontificate. There was and is a sense of God’s reign of righteousness and justice being heralded in a new way, by a joyful generosity of spirit. In joyful generosity there is the sense of re birth, of an immanence of the love that moves the heart, which is nearer than heartbeat and closer than breathing. For Pope Francis this Word incarnate comes to us as we are, but doesn’t leave us there. Radical demonstrations of unexpected love are being called for, especially amongst those who aren’t expecting it or think they don’t deserve it.
Over the first ten years of this pontificate, we began to see evidence of this thinking and this prioritization. From the unexpected papal visit to the desperate refugees on the Mediterranean refugee island of Lampedusa who had survived Aleppo and the sea, to papal washing of a Muslim woman patient’s feet in holy week, to the offer to the homeless poor of Rome to shelter under the colonnades of St Peter’s Square at night supported by the St Egidio community, to a ground-breaking meeting with the Russian Orthodox patriarch, to the face to face hug of a man with a major facial disfigurement outside St Peter’s Basilica, to the offer to many main line churches to walk together in new ways, having talked together for so long. One of Pope Francis’s first global ecumenical initiatives was the faith-based anti-slavery cause.
Speaking of these priorities in terms of ecumenicism the Pope said:
‘we have all been damaged by these divisions. None of us wishes to be the cause of scandal. And we are all journeying together, fraternally, on the road toward unity, bringing about unity even as we walk: That unity comes from the Holy Spirit and brings us something unique which only the Holy Spirit can do, that is, reconciling our differences. The Lord waits for us all, accompanies us all, and is with us all, on this path to unity.’
Pope Francis’s pontificate represents in himself the cumulative wisdom and experience of a Franciscan and Jesuit Catholic Christian. This is what the church and the world need today more than ever, now ten years into this Pope’s time. These traditions emphasis the presence of God in, but not of, all things. In an often hedonist, fractured and fearful world we need the ecological, compassionate and justice seeking imperatives that these two traditions seek to embody. St Francis called us to embody the gospel in action, and St Ignatius the first Jesuit sought the same, with a strong intellectual integrity.
The eco theology encyclical Laudato Si in 2015, inspired by the Pope’s namesake St Francis, is still being referred to in many places as the world wrestles with its very existence as a viable planet. The thesis of the encyclical is that we are called to transform our relationship with the earth, since we belong to all of creation as brothers and sisters within it. Our challenge is not only to act environmentally simply to survive, but because this is our sacred vocation under God; to care for God’s earth, our only home.
The Pope called for a movement out of our sanctuaries and self-interest into the streets of a common solidarity: to rediscover ourselves as ‘team human’ under our Creator. He himself seeks to express this crucial simple common spirituality in his own life. He is driven in a small ford focus car, queues for breakfast in the community hostel of Santa Marta where he lives out of a small room, carries his own bag on occasions, makes his own lunch at times, wears relatively simple clothing, and treats everyone as his neighbour.
The Pope’s message at its heart is:
‘…looking to the mind and heart of Christ, who cannot be divided, who wants to draw us to himself, to the sentiments of his heart… to his radical self-emptying for love of humanity. Christ alone can be the principle, the cause and the driving force for our unity.’
I experienced this spirituality personally in small ways on many occasions. In one of his first papal celebrations of the January week of prayer for Christian unity at the basilica of St Peter and St Paul just outside Rome, in front of three thousand or so people, the Pope took an Orthodox metropolitan and myself alone, unexpectedly, down to the tomb of St Paul in the centre of the basilica. He held us both by the elbows as he beckoned us to approach the grave and then invited us to bow together, which we did for three minutes. After he shared a brief word of intimate reverence between us there, we continued with vespers with that huge congregation above, praying for the unity of the church and the world. At the end of the liturgy, again unexpectedly, Pope Francis invited the Orthodox archbishop and I to share in the final blessing in Italian. An unforgettable moment which he then repeated each year after that. Maybe that is one way of understanding this remarkable pontificate: to discover the joy of being a blessing to each other.
I left Rome in mid-2017 but have followed the pontificate closely since then and I see that the grain still runs true, from those early expressions of faith, hope and love. Even when some papal initiatives in recent times have been complicated by ecclesial details or world events, the papal resilience and the undying hope remain. Pope Francis reminds us in himself, that giving up on hope is always wrong, because it privileges the mind over the soul; even in the face of what seems like certain despair, giving up on hope is always wrong. We are an Easter people.
Archbishop Emeritus Sir David Moxon, a former primate of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia, was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See and director of the Anglican Centre in Rome 2013-2017.