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Francis I: simplicity and hope

22 March 2013

Christopher Hill reports from Rome, and reflects on ecumenical prospects


POPE FRANCIS's inauguration took place in glorious sunshine in St Peter's Square on Tuesday. The crowd was estimated at more than 250,000, and the Anglican delegation was led by the Archbishop of York.

Present for the first time since the eighth century was the Bishop of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew. Pope and Patriarch prayed before the mass at the tomb of St Peter. Then there was a surprise. The Pope toured St Peter's Square in an open-topped four-wheel-drive: there was no popemobile.

The processional entry began with the college of cardinals, in gold vestments, officially representing the ancient parishes of the Church of Rome, but in fact coming from the Curia and the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. At the end of the procession, in simple white vestments and mitre, accompanied by two deacons, came the new Bishop of Rome. The vestments were bought specially from Buenos Aires: they were not from the papal sacritity. I recalled the reversion to liturgical simplicity of Paul VI and John Paul I.

The rite began with two simple ceremonies. First came the bestowal of the pallium, a type of stole made of white wool, symbolising metropolitan jurisdiction. Next came the putting on of the Fisherman's Ring. And that was it. The ceremony was not an enthronement because St Peter's is not the cathedral of Rome: it is St John Lateran that has the Bishop's chair.

An innovation followed, in that only a token number of cardinals made a personal promise of obedience to the new pope. This saved many minutes of otherwise repetitive liturgy, so that the mass could move briskly on to the liturgy of the word. The first readings were in English and Spanish, and then the Gospel was sung in Greek, by a Byzantine deacon, suitably vested. This followed an ancient tradition, since the first language of the Roman Church was Greek.

Pope Francis's homily followed. As it was St Joseph's Day, celebrating the foster-parent and guardian of the Lord, Pope Francis described his ministry in this light. He systematically spoke of it in terms of being Bishop of Rome rather than any of his grander titles. He repeatedly emphasised the gentleness of this ministry.

This could be a clue to his Petrine ministry. He mentioned St Francis of Assisi, in the way that he applied the guardianship of all creation to all humanity. From the local church of Rome, he was reaching out to speak inclusively of all humanity and all creation. But, at the end, he laid a particular emphasis on service to the poor, which evoked spontaneous applause from the crowd.

The creed followed (surprisingly including the filioque), and then the intercessions, in many languages, but with the virtue of conciseness (oh, that parishes would learn this!). At the Peace, the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Armenian Catholicos were accompanied up to the altar. Cardinal Koch from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity told me that Pope Francis had intended to share the Peace with all the ecumenical delegations, but, wisely, leaner liturgy prevailed - otherwise, we would have been there all day.

Communion was distributed efficiently by more than 100 priests with yellow-and-white umbrellas - the papal colours. All were communicated in 20 minutes.

The liturgy ended with the Salve Regina and the Te Deum. It was deeply moving, simple, and faultless in its organisation.

IN TERMS of ecumenism, and especially ARCIC (the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission), it might be thought that a Latin American bishop would not know too much about those strange Christians, Anglicans, who claim to be both Catholic and reformed. But Pope Francis has met other church leaders in Argentina, as we gather from the comments of the Rt Revd Greg Venables, the former President- Bishop of the Southern Cone.

Realism prompts the recognition that Pope Francis will not be a doctrinal or ethical innovator. Nevertheless, for ARCIC, I believe that three factors will be important.

First, the culture of the papacy is bound to change, in part because of Pope Benedict's abdication, itself signalling a change of ethos, but also because of the new simplicity that Pope Francis is already inaugur-ating. The papal tiara has long since gone, but the new pope's ministry seems destined to be more pastoral than monarchical.

Second, Francis's choice of name and his track-record in Buenos Aires as a champion of the poor converge with the priorities of Anglicans in many parts of the world - and most notably the new Archbishop of Canterbury's informed but critical economic stance.

Whatever doctrinal differences remain, we can work for the common good together. Here, there must be an agenda for ARCIC's sister body, the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission.

Third, the main task of ARCIC III is to look at the relation between the local and universal Church in decision-making. This is also the internal Anglican question of the hour, in relation to women bishops and, more acutely, questions of sexuality.

Francis's first words as pope, after his informal "Buona sera", spoke of the Church of Rome itself, as he looked out at the largely Roman crowds. This was duly confirmed in his homily on Tuesday.

Collegiality and the enhancement of more local decision-making is the desire of many, many Roman Catholics, not least bishops. Ideas about the local and the universal will be central to the next meeting of ARCIC in Rio de Janeiro next month.

The election of a pope from Latin America is a matter of hope for all Anglicans, not only those who are members of ARCIC. Although no one expects quick fixes, the long-term goal remains, and seems a little more clearly visible after Tuesday in St Peter's Square.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is the Bishop of Guildford, and was the Anglican Secretary of ARCIC I and II.

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