The first appearance of Pope Francis to the world contained a critically important message for every bishop in the world — a lesson made all the more important by the way that the Second Vatican Council stressed the importance of bishops.
The Pope, before bestowing his blessing on the crowd, the city, and the world, bowed before the faithful of the whole world and asked them to bestow their blessing, via their prayers, on him.
Now Pope Francis is quite aware of the distinction between the hierarchy and the laity. He knows the difference between the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of the laity.
But what he is doing here is affirming another equally important truth. It was expressed in this way by Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:
“There is, therefore, one chosen People of God: ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph. 4:5); there is a common dignity of members deriving from their rebirth in Christ, a common grace as sons, a common vocation to perfection, one salvation, one hope and undivided charity.” (Lumen Gentium, 34).
In his document for the Jubilee Year, Novo Millennio Ineunte, Blessed John Paul II wrote the following words, on the same theme:
“While the wisdom of the law, by providing precise rules for participation, attests to the hierarchical structure of the Church and averts any temptation to arbitrariness or unjustified claims, the spirituality of communion, by prompting a trust and openness wholly in accord with the dignity and responsibility of every member of the People of God, supplies institutional reality with a soul.” (n. 45)
The “wisdom of the law” says the Pope is the Pope, and the bishop is the bishop, and they have specifically outlined jurisdiction and authority.
But communion means that each member of the flock they shepherd has an equal dignity and a shared responsibility. The bishop (and Pope) are not just called to govern; they are called to trust. They are not just called to make decisions; they are called to be open about those decisions and how they reached them.
Now let’s go back to the Pope’s first appearance after being elected. He did not simply ask the people to pray for him. He put that in a doctrinal and spiritual context — very briefly, but very clearly and profoundly. And it reflects exactly what we read above from the Second Vatican Council and from John Paul II. Notice how he mentions the trust, and the mutuality of the journey we are on. Here’s what Pope Francis said:
“And now let us begin this journey: Bishop and people. …. A journey of brotherhood, of love, of trust between us. Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world, that there might be a great sense of brotherhood. And now I would like to give the blessing. But first, first, I want to ask you a favor. Before the Bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord that he bless me – the prayer of the people, asking a Benediction for their Bishop. Let us say in silence this prayer, of you over me.”
Then he bowed before the world, and stood in that bowed position for a silent pause of prayer.
“The prayer of the people … you over me.” The Pope, from his first moments, is teaching a powerful lesson about communion, about the relationship between the hierarchy and the rest of the Church. Love, brotherhood, trust, a journey of brotherhood and mutual sharing of spiritual goods.
May this truth be reflected in the relationship of every bishop with his people, and of every priest with his parish!