It is often said that the Church does not think in terms of single pontificates, but in centuries. For those who have trouble even naming the popes of the last one hundred years, this is a challenging mindset to adopt. But let’s stretch our minds a bit, anyway, and attempt to take in a single optic the trajectory of the Church in the last 140 years–from the papacy of Leo XIII (pope from 1878 to 1903) to that of the humble, warm-hearted, intelligent man who just began his papacy yesterday: Pope Francis I. What do we see when we take in this landscape? Where has the Church been and where is it going?
George Weigel, in his magnificent new book, Evangelical Catholicism, calls Pope Leo XIII the founder of the modern papacy. For it was Leo, Weigel contends, who “set in motion a profound transformation of Catholicism in which the Church slowly moved beyond the catechetical-devotional model that had been dominant since the sixteenth-century Counter-Reformation to a new model–a model that is best described as Evangelical Catholicism.” According to Weigel, Pope Leo was responsible for launching the Church’s engagement with modern cultural, political, economic, and social life. Two of the most famous seeds of Leo’s renewal are his call for scholars to re-embrace the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, in his encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), and his creation of what we now know as “Catholic Social Thought” in his encyclical, Rerum novarum (1891).
Throughout the twentieth century the seeds of Leo’s renewal grew in a variety of ways, reaching a culmination in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Vatican II, Weigel writes, “brought to a moment of high drama the dynamic process begun by Leo’s reforms: the process of moving Catholicism beyond the Counter-Reformation.” For Weigel, the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI were devoted to putting “an authoritative interpretation” on Vatican II. As then Cardinal Ratzinger said in his 1985 interview published as The Ratzinger Report: “to defend the true tradition of the Church today means to defend the Council.” For these two brilliant popes, not to mention the too little praised Paul VI, Vatican II was the definitive declaration of how the Church meant to carry forward the reforms first brought forth by Leo, reforms rooted in the dogmatic tradition of the Church yet eager for ways to effectively engage a modern world that had come loose from its moorings in the Faith.
This reinvigorated missionary eagerness of the Church is what Weigel calls “Evangelical Catholicism.” The recent popes have called it the “New Evangelization,” a term popularized by John Paul II. The New Evangelization in the deepest sense is, of course, not new. The preaching of the Good News is the very heart of the Church’s activity. But what makes the New Evangelization new is the situation of the Church in the modern world. “As the year 2000 approaches,” wrote John Paul in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), “our world feels an urgent need for the Gospel. Perhaps we feel this need precisely because the world seems to be distancing itself from the Gospel, or rather because the world has not yet drawn near to the Gospel.” John Paul makes clear that it is the modern world’s rejection, and simultaneous need, of the Gospel which has called forth the New Evangelization.
And the work of the New Evangelization continues–indeed, we should think of it as still very much in the springtime of its days. It is just fifty years since the Council, the fullest expression (so far) of the Leonine renewal. It is not even a century and a half since Leo began his pontificate. This is hardly the blink of an eye in the life of the Church. We are still in the midst of a grand missionary project, a spiritual adventure that defines the time God has graciously granted each of us to live in this world.
And yesterday, the Holy Spirit appointed the man who will show us how to “put out into the deep” of the next stage in this adventure. The pontificate of Pope Francis, like those of his predecessors, will also put “an authoritative interpretation” on Vatican II. It will cultivate the seeds of the Leonine renewal in order to bring the Church’s ancient tradition into an ever more effective engagement with modernity. It is far too early to judge just how he will do this. But as signs of our new Holy Father’s sensibility, we should take note, first, of his papal name, which associates him with the reforming spirit of St. Francis Assisi that was always so close to the poor.
But we should also note how throughout his first greeting from the loggia of St. Peter’s the Holy Father referred both to himself and to Pope Emeritus Benedict as bishops, not popes, using the Italian word vescovo. He also spoke directly to the crowd assembled in the square about “this journey of the Church of Rome,” and “the Evangelization of this beautiful city.” Perhaps there is nothing unusual in this. The pope after all is the Bishop of Rome. But perhaps in referring to himself as bishop, and speaking directly to the largely Roman crowd about the evangelization of Rome, he was placing emphasis upon the nuptial relationship that exists between a bishop and his diocese and showing us something of his heart: the heart of a groom in love with the bride to whom he has pledged his life.
In Evangelical Catholicism Weigel remarks upon the marble statue of Pope Leo XIII above his tomb at the basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. The statue does not depict Leo lying down, a posture found in many statues on papal tombs throughout the city. Rather, Leo is depicted standing upright–as Weigel describes it, “arm extended and foot thrust forward, as if inviting the world into a serious conversation about the human prospect–as if leading the Church out of the past and into a new, confident, evangelical future.” From all we have learned about him so far, there is every indication that Pope Francis will spiritually assume that same posture, a posture of holy daring as he leads us toward the summer of the New Evangelization.