Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus papam: We have a pope! And so Pope Francis walked out on the balcony, spoke humbly of his mission, asked for the prayers of all people, and blessed the city and the world.
It was a climactic moment, coming after weeks of speculation and interviews. We still know little about the new bishop of Rome, but detail after detail is emerging and surely more will become known in the weeks ahead.
I am still somewhat bemused by the attention paid to the papacy over these past several weeks. One could hardly turn on a news station without an extended treatment of the “candidates” for the job, or the latest Roman reports. Even local television outlets have reporters in Vatican City, attending to all the details of the election and après-election.
Perhaps this is all a result of the twenty-four hour news loop, a beast demanding endless meals. Or perhaps it is the result of our celebrity-oriented culture, where personalities often trump issues. But the endless fixation on the papacy is disproportionate. While high-toned discussions about Christianity and the Church are surely beneficial to our society, the greatest danger of this endless coverage is to elevate the role of the papacy—or, perhaps better, the personality of any individual occupant—beyond the theological significance of the office itself.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, is the newly elected bishop of Rome. We have already learned some important facts about him: He is from the Global South; he takes a bus to work; he is the first Jesuit elected; and he has taken the name Francis, invoking the memory of those great saints, Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier, both Church reformers in their own way.
While these are all interesting sidebars about the new pope, it is important to remember that the papacy is about exercising a fundamental office in the Church, an office which has only one essential goal: to help all men and women know and love the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who has come uniquely near to us in Jesus Christ.
In service of this goal, there are two crucial aspects to the papacy: First and foremost, the pope must, as St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Guard the deposit that has been entrusted to you!” (1 Tim. 6:20). The pope’s primary function is to preserve the apostolic tradition, ensuring that it is transmitted from age to age without deformation or deviation.
Of course, he is not entrusted with this task alone. The Catholic bishops throughout the world, as Vatican II insisted, are also collegially vested with this calling. So, too, are theologians, who investigate the Christian faith with the tools of critical scholarship, thereby helping the Church both to preserve the faith and to develop it properly over time. But the bishop of Rome is the primary teacher in Catholicism, and so it falls to him to vigilantly protect the apostolic deposit, as well as to ensure its homogeneous growth and development.
Secondly, the pope must be a man who serves as a center of unity. The Catholic Church throughout the globe encompasses an extraordinary variety of nations, cultures, and customs. The pope must ensure that the unity of the Church perdures, even while fostering authentic and healthy pluralism. This task alone requires Solomonic wisdom. But here, too, the pope will receive wise counsel from his fellow bishops and theologians.
Pope Francis has innumerable issues begging for his attention: the evangelization of peoples, continued ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, standing firm against relativism and unhealthy secularism, outreach to the young and the alienated, the reform of the curia, the restructuring of the Vatican bank, and on and on the list continues.
But no pope, no matter his brilliance or holiness, can be a panacea for the Church. And, theologically speaking, the papal office is not intended to undertake these tasks without the collective wisdom of the Church, or, indeed, without the contributions of all men and women of good will.
We rejoice in the election of Pope Francis. With him, we rely on the grace and help of Jesus Christ.
Thomas G. Guarino is professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and co-chairman of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.