If one were called upon to describe Pope Francis, the first word likely come to mind would be, well, the word “first.” There’s so much “first-ness” about this new pope. He is the first pope to hail from South America, the first pope of the Jesuit order, the first pope to take the name Francis in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi and, apparently, the first pope to have only one lung. At his first mass as pope, he eschewed the red papal cape for a simple white cassock, his only adornment on that occasion the simple pectoral cross from his days as a bishop in Buenos Aires. He turned down a residency in the papal palace for a less lavish domicile, the Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse. He carries his own bags and makes calls on his own mobile phone. There’s a simplicity and humility about the new pope that both Catholics and non-Catholics find endearing. To quote his admirers, he’s a “breath of fresh air.”
If you are one of those people who regard the prophecies of a certain 12th century Irish monk as credible, then you likely believe that Pope Francis is also the last pope. Saint Malachy (1094-1148) was an Irish monk who, while on a visit to Rome in 1139, reportedly had a vision of all the popes who would reign from the time of Celestine II (elected in 1130) until the alleged end of the world. Malachy describes each of the 112 future popes in short verses which depict some noticeable feature of each of the coming pontiffs. The Irish monk turned his prophecies over to Pope Innocent IV in 1140. Despite this effort on Malachy’s part to safeguard his predictions, his verses were lost for 400 years. Then in 1595, Malachy’s writing was discovered, recorded, and published as a book, Lignum Vitae, by the Benedictine monk and historian Arnold de Wyon.
The last pope to appear in Malachy’s vision was a man he called Petrus Romanus, Peter the Roman, the 266th and final pope, whose pontificate ends with the destruction of Rome. The verse describing the final pope reads thus:
“In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church there will reign Petrus Romanus who will feed his flock amid many tribulations; after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people. The End.”
Although the Vatican gives no credence to Malachy’s cryptic verses, the 12th century “seer” does have his supporters. However, if there is a connection between the new pope and the Petrus Romanus in Malachy’s verse, it isn’t readily apparent. True, Pope Francis’ namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, was born in Italy and was named Giovanni di Pietro (Peter) di Bernardone. And Pope Francis is the son of Italian immigrants from the Asti region of Italy who settled in Argentina. But that doesn’t make either Francis a Roman. There simply is no discernible connection between Pope Francis and the pope in Malachy’s final vision.
In the six months since his inauguration, Pope Francis has continued to distinguish himself from his predecessors. Pope Francis’ namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, believed it was his God-given task to reform the church. Pope Francis seems to be of a similar mind. Pope Francis wants a poorer, simpler church. (The Bishop of Limburg, with his lavish new residence, has yet to get the message, it appears.) Faulting the Catholic Church for obsessing with “hot-button” social issues that divide people–like gay marriage, abortion, and contraception–Pope Francis is calling for a more “balanced” church. He wants a more inclusive church, too. Something no pope has done before, Pope Francis is reaching out to the gay community, a move not without its controversy. Indeed, some of his remarks have “raised eyebrows.” He has said, for instance, that, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” On another occasion, he said that the Church must not “interfere spiritually” in the lives of gays and lesbians. (I wonder what he meant by “interfere spiritually.” Strange comment from the supreme spiritual leader of the Catholic Church.)
The Catholic Church, according to Pope Francis, should be a “home for all.” But can the Church be a “home for all” and still be the Church? The Church came into being at Pentecost as a body of believers, a community of Christ-followers. The problem with inclusiveness as a goal is that it tempts the Church to “water down” its beliefs and teaching in order to make everyone feel “at home.”
In yet another first for a pope, Pope Francis held the rite of Maundy Thursday foot-washing, not in St. Peter’s where it had been traditionally held, but in a youth prison, the Casal del Marmo. There, he washed, dried, and then kissed the feet, not of twelve priests but of twelve young offenders, some of whom had no knowledge whatsoever as to what the Pope was doing, or why, until the ceremony was carefully explained to them. Jesus had washed the feet of his twelve apostles to demonstrate servant leadership. Two of the twelve to have their feet washed and kissed by Pope Francis that day were young women; another two were Muslims.
Pope Francis’ namesake Saint Francis of Assisi is famous for his outreach to the Muslim world. I suspect that is one of the current pope’s goals as well. There are undoubtedly more “firsts” yet to come.