SHU Hosts Panel Discussion on the Election of Pope Francis

From left are Tony Ciorra, George Collins, David Gibson and Michael W. Higgins.

News Story: May 8, 2013

Sacred Heart University hosted a panel discussion recently to examine the politics and theology of the recent papal election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, along with the qualities of the new pope. Panelists included Michael W. Higgins, vice president for mission and catholic identity at SHU and Vatican affairs analyst for the CTV network and The Globe and Mail; George Collins, a Jesuit and director of campus ministry at Fairfield University; and David Gibson, a biographer of Benedict XVI, writer on ecclesial affairs and an award-winning contributor to several journals and news sources. Anthony Ciorra, assistant vice president for mission and catholic identity at SHU, moderated the event.

Gibson’s attendance at the last two papal conclaves—in 2005 and again in 2013—has given him a window into the Vatican and the modern world. “As a young Catholic, if you are wondering, ‘what is the future of the Catholic Church and do I have a voice?’ I believe the answer now is yes,” Gibson said. He noted that not only has a pope resigned for the first time in 700 years, but for the first time, we have a Jesuit pope and a pope who took the name of St. Francis of Assisi. “Benedict was the first non-Italian pope in 450 years. He was the first German pope in 1,000 years. Francis is the first non-European pope in quite some time,” he said.

The discussion evolved with a central theme of change and progress. Gibson pointed out that while Pope Benedict would have preferred to be in the country writing his books than be pope, he made a tremendous impact.  “Here was this traditional person who did some of the most radical things. He realized we needed a younger pope and decided to leave. In doing so, he helped to de-mystify the papacy,” Gibson said.

“The pope is the bishop of Rome: the first among equals. For a long time, he was just the first. This is a great opportunity to re-position,” Higgins told the gathering. He believes that Francis’ election will restore hope, and he is also impressed with the pope’s humanity. “The concept of the celebrity of the pope was a negative aspect from the pontificate of John Paul II. Francis is trying to de-mystify the office,” he said.

Collins spoke about the significance of the pope being a Jesuit. After joining the Jesuits in 2000 and later attending the Jesuit School of Theology in Berklee, Calif., Collins was ordained in 2010. “If you have met a Jesuit, you have met just that – a Jesuit. We have a deep awareness of being a loved sinner. Francis is used to working with people every day,” he said. “He is continuing to do what he has loved for years: being a shepherd and a pastor.” He added that like most Jesuits, the new pope is not comfortable in the limelight. “St. Ignatius asked Jesuits not to seek out these positions, so for Francis to be named bishop of Rome was a great moment of pride, but also a signal that something had changed,” he said.

Gibson also commented on symbols. He was part of a group of journalists who met with Pope Benedict in 2005 and now in 2013 with Francis. “Benedict came out with these bright red shoes. He read a statement in English, Italian, French and German. He forgot to read it in Spanish, and half of the world’s Catholics speak Spanish. Then, he walked off stage,” he said. “Pope Francis came out with these tattered shoes. He read a couple of lines and then said, ‘Perhaps you’d like to hear how I chose my name Francis.’ He spoke to the crowd and then said, sort of off the cuff, ‘Wouldn’t that be great if we were a church who is poor for the poor?’”

Moderator Anthony Ciorra wondered if, with all of these changes, the church is no longer a European church. “If so, what does it mean to become a world church?” he asked.
Sharing his belief that the church is more than 200 years behind the times and noting the paradigm shift, Higgins spoke of the balance between change and tradition and the role the papacy has played in telling the world what is right and wrong on specific issues. “Francis is a doctrinal conservative, but being a conservative does not translate into being a reactionary,” he said. “I don’t think he sees his responsibilities as the end all and be all of ministry. He is more concerned with finding signs of spiritual sincerity.”

“I like how they kept saying that he was a pope of humility and authenticity and simplicity. It seems like he would be more relatable to young people,” said Gia Spinelli ’15, a health science and physical therapy major from Rockland County, N.Y. “I read encyclicals from other popes, and they seemed difficult to understand and relate to. He is a lot more involved with the people.”

Gibson said that Pope Francis is a doctrinal conservative but a radical in that he sees Christianity in all of its manifestations. “It’s not just about sexual ethics; it’s also about Matthew 25 and giving to the poor. That is not an optional passage.” The panelists agreed that in many ways, the church has spent too much time focusing on the small arguments between people.
Ines Duzic ’15, a marketing major with a fashion concentration, appreciated the authenticity of the new pope. “I like that they said he is a very simple man and he doesn’t want to focus on the issues that people argue about,” said the Brick, N.J., resident. “He wants to go out and help the people on the outskirts like the poor.”

During the Q&A, the panel was asked to predict what the pope’s panelists first encyclical will be about. Collins said he hopes it is on poverty and the widening gap between the rich and poor. Gibson said he wasn’t sure St. Francis would write one, but the length and format would be more fascinating than the content. “An encyclical is an ecclesiological document asking: what is the church? What is our mission? I think Francis’ encyclical is when he went and washed the feet of young women and Muslims,” Gibson said. Added Higgins, “The first encyclical provides the key to the pontificate. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s just a series of one-liners.”

The Office of Mission & Catholic Identity sponsored the event, which was part of the Human Journey Core Colloquia Series.