Ronald Knox mused: “Perhaps it would be a good thing if every Christian, certainly if every priest,could dream once in his life that he were Pope, and wake from that nightmare in a sweat of agony.” As I write the Church and indeed a fascinated if puzzled world await the conclave and the election of the man who, as next Bishop of Rome, will carry an onerous burden of expectations and problems.

The Petrine ministry holds a unique place in Catholic theology and imagination. Indeed our Order has from the beginning emphasised our link with the “Roman Church” and the Successor of Peter. In the very first lines of our Rule Francis, on our behalf, promises obedience to the Pope.

However the Pope is not the Church nor is he above the Church – even if one might get that impression from some of the recent media comment. He exercises his ministry as a member of God’s people, among God’s people and for the sake of God’s people.

It is very interesting to notice that in Francis’ writings different visions of Church are present. When speaking of the friars relations with the hierarchy Francis uses the accepted language. So we hear of the “Lord Pope,” the cardinal who is to be “governor, protector, and corrector,” of the Order and that the friars are to be “always submissive and prostrate at the feet” of the Church. But in their relations within the fraternity and with the people the friars are to model a different type of Christian community. In this context definite Gospel terms and images are used: brothers, minores, ministers and servants, a mutual love greater than that of a mother, the washing of feet.

We frequently experience tension as we try to hold in balance these different realities of Church. The late Franciscan Cardinal Lorscheiter of Brazil said religious, and friars in particular, should expect this tension and consider it healthy. “The charism of religious is to be agents of renewal and creativity, the pioneers in discovering the pastoral and missionary needs of the Church. This is your gift, and you must not wait for the hierarchy to call you. The hierarchy has its own charism of coordination. Because of your charism will often be uncomfortable. However the Church will get alone well in the measure that you live this missionary charism.” 

In his moving final audience Pope Benedict stressed “the Church is not mine, not ours, but His” and “the Gospel’s word of truth is the strength and life of the Church.” Here he echoes the dying Francis who told us: “The Gospel must come before every other rule or precept.”

Whoever the new Pope will be (God bless him!) the friars will still need to hold in harmony two key elements of our Franciscan vocation: “obedience and reverence” for the Pope and the courageous living of our Gospel calling.

Check out franciscanponderings