Pope Francis: Tradition in Transition



by Massimo Faggioli

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


I think it is very brave to write a book about our Pope! Pope Francis has a ‘tool box’ that is unsurpassed by anyone now or in the past! His morning Mass at the Vatican gives me my direction for the day! He is a man/priest that ‘gets’ people as well as the need for community. Faggioli has the gift of writing history well with clarity and purpose. In the prologue, the mystique of the Papacy is undertaken. First of all, the resignation of Benedict XVI has certainly marked a shift in both the form of the Pope’s power as well as the global idea of the papacy. The ongoing redefinition of the “mystique of the papacy” as “the widespread perception of the pope’s power that is consistent with the long-term ecclesiological trajectories of Vatican II, but other aspects are still unknown”. This book is an attempt to capture some special moments and some key issues at the heart of the transition from Pope Benedict XVI to Francis, with the intuition that this unexpected transition reveals something that is not only a special “Catholic event” but also a particular historic moment of a tradition in flux: a tradition that touches the contemporary world far beyond the borders of Rome and Roman Catholicism. This book is a result of a year of conferences, talks, reflections, and observations: partly originating from the American academic environment in which I carry out my teaching and research, but largely from other opportunities, which are equally fascinating and challenging.

In the end of Chapter one Faggioli discusses how Bergoglio (the Pope’s last name) changed, thanks to his pastoral work with the poor. In his companion’s eyes, it is ironic that in a sense, Bergoglio become a Jesuit only when he became a bishop and this is ironic when one thinks of the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, against the idea that the member of the new order could make a career in the Church. But it also says a lot about the ability of this Church of the late twentieth century to change and publicly learn from its mistakes and the change from Bergoglio to Francis could be just one step toward the further development of this Latin American Jesuit priest. Bergoglio is a bishop of Vatican I in the sense of having a career devoid of “ecclesiological adulteries”(as some council fathers of Vatican II called them) that tend to stain the reputation of many bishops who change from one diocese to another in a very bureaucratic career system that is hardly theologically inspired: only two dioceses appear in the episcopal career of Pope Francis, Buenos Aires and Rome. Also for this reason the term bishop and people has a significance in Bergoglio’s case that it cannot have for many other bishops and cardinals. There are liberal “dissenting Catholics” who are disappointed by Pope Francis but there are many more people who notice a change in emphasis in the attitude of the new pope to the key ideas of Vatican II. His pontificate could play a crucial role in removing the past decade’s ideological interpretations of Vatican II as liberal or progressive theology, or as a theology that is now outdated and unable to cope with the challenges of the present time. For Catholic theology, Vatican II is the common ground for diverse cultural and political sensitivities, common ground that resists sectarianism and revisionism: it is not coincidence that it is a non-European and non-North American pope who has inherited this task. The pontificate of Pope Francis will test the strength of conciliar theology to meet the new challenges of the Church, in celebration of fifty years since Vatican II. The notes and the epilogue of this book should be read with relish as Faggioli extends his understanding of Pope Francis in a unique and inviting manner stating both his limitations in understanding Pope Francis as well as the direction that he sees Pope Francis taking.

The two predecessors of Pope Francis, over the past thirty-five years, have done little in directing the Church. The ability of the Catholic Church to govern and reform, under the gaze of the media, who are particularly sympathetic and lenient with Pope Francis, might say something to all those who see the inability of the contemporary world to recover the legitimacy of a foundational ethical-political tradition. With Francis, the papacy abandons the enchanting sirens of the apocalyptic utterances and turns to prophecy.

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