It has been suggested that no previous pope has taken the name “Francis” because St. Francis was too holy and the popes were too humble.
Instead, I believe no popes have taken the name Francis because St. Francis was a prophet, not a pope or a priest.
In the Hebrew tradition, two strains of ministry emerged: the priestly and the prophetic. Both were necessary and they complemented one another. The priests preserved the status quo. They maintained the sacrificial system, were custodians of the temple and preserved the establishment. The priests were involved in maintenance, not mission.
The prophets, on the other hand, were at the cutting edge. They lived the faith with radical example. Embracing poverty, extreme religious vows and calling for renewed commitment, they spoke out against injustice, protested the abuses of the powerful, defended the poor and lived their faith with wild eyed passion and burning zeal.
The prophets skated on thin ice, took risks, punched above their weight and paid the price. The priests, on the other hand, played it safe, preserved the traditions, fortified the foundations of the faith. They were diplomats and did the undramatic work of debating, defining and defending the faith. They refined the fine points and understood that the divine is in the details.
Every religion needs its prophets, but every religion also needs its priests. We need radical exemplars of the faith whose lives are obviously consumed with passion for God and others, but we also need the quieter, conservative, seemingly unremarkable men and women who do not love God any less, but who are called to a more mundane expression of their faith.
In other words, we need dramatic dreamers, but we also need dutiful defenders. We need missionaries, but we also need maintenance men.
The lives of Saints Peter and Paul illustrate the priestly and prophetic ministries. St. Paul was on fire for Christ. Totally converted and traveling tirelessly, he evangelized, fought, wrote and preached. He spent his days listening to and loving God’s people.
Peter was no less passionate for Christ, but his ministry became one of founding churches and taking the leadership role. If you like, Paul was the prophet, Peter the priest and pope.
The famous clash between Peter and Paul was the clash between the prophetic Paul who wanted radical freedom for gentile converts and papal Peter who was worried about the impact of such radicalism on the faithful. Paul was pushing boundaries. Peter was defending borders.
Which brings us to the ministry of Peter in the church. Peter and his successors exercise a ministry that is essentially priestly, not prophetic. The pope is the primary definer and defender of the faith. His job is to clarify and make the final call.
The church certainly needs prophets. More than ever we need radical examples of sanctity. We need stunning pioneers of faith, hope and charity at work in the world. We need prophetic figures to challenge the established powers, to defend those who have no voice, to speak out against the greed, violence and rage that destroy the weak. We need warriors who will defend the unborn, the poor, the elderly, the stranger and the helpless.
The office of pope has a prophetic dimension and the best popes have shown what it means to be a radical disciple of Jesus Christ, but the papacy is not primarily a prophetic office. It is priestly, and the pope’s job of defining and defending the faith is crucial to that essentially conservative dimension of the papacy.
It is therefore disturbing to many Catholics that Pope Francis refuses to answer the requests for clarity submitted to him by four of his cardinals. The questions are submitted on behalf of the world’s faithful. They are stated simply and should not be difficult to answer.
Why then has Pope Francis remained silent? Is it because he is more prophet than pope?
While we love and admire Pope Francis for his prophetic stance, we also expect him to exercise the high priestly dimension of his office. His constant support for the poor, the marginalized and oppressed is wonderful. His concern and compassion for those in difficult marital situations is admirable, but as pope, part of his job is to define and defend the clear and unambiguous teaching of Christ’s gospel.
Requesting the pope to clarify his teaching is not to demand mindless legalism or an unbending harshness. All Catholics are well aware of the complexity of marital situations. Pastors realize the application of church teaching is an intricate and delicate task. Pastors wish to respond with sensitivity and concern for the souls of their flock.
However, to do so they need clarification, and the longer the pope delays his answer the more it looks like he is intentionally promoting ambiguity, and the ensuing confusion clouds the conscience and hinders both the pope and the whole church from getting on with the vital task of living out the gospel of mercy with both charity and clarity.