|Source: Vatican Communications|
God's plan for the Church?
In retrospect, Pope Benedict XVI laid some key foundations for the revival of the Church: putting Vatican II in its proper perspective and interpreting it correctly; the recovery of the importance of beauty as an absolute, embedded in a culture handed down to us; and a focus on effecting Church unity that went beyond nice ecumenical platitudes and gestures.
So what will Pope Francis bring to the task?
Well for one thing, perhaps a revival of religious life.
The importance of (genuine) religious life
The Vatican has just released its latest statistical yearbook, for 2011, and one of the striking statistics contained in this treasure trove relates to the continuing decline in religious life around the world.
When it comes to priests, the growth in numbers in places like Africa and Asia outweighs the declining numbers in Europe and the West.
When it comes to religious men and women though, the story is different.
The number of religious priests, lay brothers, nuns and sisters continued to decline strongly overall between 2006 and 2011, despite the growth areas. And given the ever increasing average age of religious in countries like Australia - and the almost total absence of new vocations (there was a grand total of 15 female novices in Australia in 2011), that won't change quickly unless something drastic occurs.
But perhaps something drastic will occur.
The most reported thing to date about our new Pope has been his practice of radical poverty. His practice is, of course, consistent with his religious vows - but unexpected for all that given the state of most religious institutes around the world, the Jesuits (especially?) included.
His view of the importance of religious life, though, clearly goes beyond the recovery of a commitment to the poor and marginalized, and fidelity to the evangelical counsels. Indeed, his letter to the head of his own Order just released points to the importance of the witness of religious life in and of itself:
"I received with great joy the kind letter you sent me, in your name and that of the Society of Jesus, on the occasion of my election to the See of Peter, in which you assure me of your prayers for me and my apostolic ministry as well as your full disposition to continue serving - unconditionally - the Church and the Vicar of Christ according to the teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola.My heartfelt thanks for this sign of affection and closeness, which I am happy to reciprocate, asking the Lord to illuminate and accompany all Jesuits, so that faithful to the charism received and following in the footsteps of the saints of our beloved Order, they may be evangelical leaven in the world in their pastoral action, but above all in the witness of a life totally dedicated to the service of the Church, the Spouse of Christ, seeking unceasingly the glory of God and the good of souls."
The popes, three messages for religious life
There is of course, nothing new or radical about the view that the importance of religious life is not so much in what religious do, but in their total holocaust of self, their life lived only for God without the distractions of family and secular life.
All the same, it is a message that stands in radical opposition to the views of many religious orders today!
And it provides, perhaps, a third plank to the reform plan for religious life put forward by the previous two popes.
Pope John Paul II put a lot of emphasis on the importance of the prayer of contemplative religious for the world, even establishing a contemplative monastery of women (of rotating orders) in the Vatican to pray for the work of the Pope.
Pope Benedict XVI stressed the importance of the 'Opus Dei', the praying of the liturgy for no purpose other than the pure praise of God, particularly in the Divine Office, by religious, reflecting his teaching and conviction that the liturgy is truly the source and summit of our lives.
Pope Francis seems so far to be stressing the witness of the state of life of religious, and the radical practice of the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
I suspect the message that religious life is not meant to be just an unmarried version of lay life, but rather something radically different is a critical one in counteracting the decline of religious life in the West.
Will it be enough to spur the recovery of the importance of religious life in the Church?
Let's hope so, for as both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI pointed out on a number of occasions, religious life has been part of the structure of the Church from its very origins, and is essential to its health.
We cannot hope to revive the practice of the faith in countries like Australia through priests and an engaged laity alone, we need that ideal of radical commitment held in front of us to spur us onward.
So do pray for our Pope, and for the revival of religious life.
Pope Francis links
By the way, if you are looking for some reading on what Pope Francis' views really are, the ever excellent New Advent has some great links up on Pope Francis, including to his previous writings and his upcoming schedule.