Should a man want to be pope? The New Testament has something to say about it. St. Paul handed on his apostolic authority to two of his disciples – Timothy and Titus. In giving instructions to Timothy he writes,
“If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover, he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
Apart from being the husband of one wife and having well-behaved kids, Pope Francis fits the bill, and despite what he told the school children, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to serve the Lord as a priest or bishop with a sincere heart.
On the other hand, Pope Francis’ admission reveals the ambiguity all men and women feel who are truly called to the religious life or the sacred priesthood. We want to serve God, and we recognize with St. Paul that to hear this call and to have this desire is a good thing. However, we face the call with trepidation, for the burden is too great, and the demands too overwhelming. The priest is to function in persona Christi. The pope is to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. It’s impossible!
We feel like Frodo Baggins as he heard the call to take the ring of power into the dark realms of Mordor. At the point that it becomes clear what he must do, Frodo feels a great cloud over him. A weight bears down on him as he realizes the enormity of his task. Nevertheless, he steps up and says, “I will take the ring to Mordor, but I do not know the way.”
This clash of feelings within the man called to sacred ministry reflects the ongoing clash each ordained man feels within his daily life as a priest. He knows his faults and weaknesses, yet he also knows the high expectations of his calling. Furthermore, the true extent of the calling is that he is not only expected to play a role and put on his priestly persona when he puts on his black clothes. Rather, he is expected to fill the role with his personality. The priest is not supposed to simply act out the priesthood; he is to become the priest he is called to be. He is to be transformed by the grace of the sacrament of ordination.
It is very healthy and realistic, therefore, for Francis to express his reluctance to be pope. He knows the demands of the job and realizes that he cannot, in his own strength, fulfill those demands. In expressing his reluctance to do the job, he is also expressing his reliance on the grace of God, which empowers him.
The Pope’s frank admission and personal witness will resonate with all those who are contemplating Christian ministry or who are already ordained or following a religious vocation. We hear Pope Francis’ reluctance, and we can acknowledge our own feelings of inadequacy and trepidation.
As we see him respond to the call with courage, humor, humility, and humanity, we are encouraged to do the same, realizing that with God all things are possible, and with grace we too can respond to God’s call – even though we do not know the way.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.