Bible scholar: Pope Francis is following Jesus’ lead

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

If Pope Francis has taken the world and the church by storm, it is because of “his relationship with Jesus and the model of Jesus’ leadership as portrayed in the Gospels,” a nationally acclaimed biblical scholar said Oct. 20 in the annual Roppolo Lecture.

Dominican Sister Barbara Reid, vice president and academic dean and professor of New Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, called Pope Francis a wise pastor who is reorienting the church to the idea of service, mercy and forgiveness.

One of the primary images that reflects Pope Francis’ vision for the church is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-20), an account that Sister Barbara calls “an acted-out parable.”

Sister Barbara, past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, said many biblical scholars have reflected on the theological meaning of the washing of the feet.

“Everybody agrees that it is an act that is rich in symbolic meaning, but not everybody agrees on what that meaning is,” she said.

Some scholars see the foot-washing as “an example of humble service – Jesus lowering himself to perform a service that pertained to slaves; it is a reversal of roles,” she said.

Others have emphasized that the act of foot-washing is an act of hospitality into eternal life, “a symbolic welcoming of the disciples into the place where Jesus is going.”

‘An acted-out parable’

Sister Barbara believes there is an even deeper meaning, advanced by Sandra Schneiders in her 2003 book, “Written That You May Believe.” Schneiders calls the foot-washing “an acted-out parable, a prophetic act that helps us interpret Jesus’ death as the consequence of the way that he has appointed his life for others.”

“It’s not a simple gesture of humility, it is not a singular act, but it symbolizes the whole way in which Jesus embodied God’s love through his whole earthly sojourn,” Sister Barbara said. “It’s a costly love that culminates in his laying down his life for his own.”

She said the Gospel account in the 13th chapter of John makes it clear that “what Jesus is doing is entirely motivated by love. His death is love, not atonement for sin.”

When, 12 days after he was elected pope, Pope Francis washed the feet of prisoners at a youth prison in Rome, he was “calling us all to that same kind of giving up one’s life for one’s friends out of love. I think Pope Francis has very consciously reached out to people on the margins, to people who are forgotten.”

Pope Francis called for a Year of Mercy in keeping with that same emphasis in the Gospel, she said.

“I think he’s really trying to completely reorient us away from any kind of legalism and any kind of fixation on atonement for sins,” Sister Barbara said. “He himself lives out of a spirituality that’s so profoundly freeing. The first thing he says about himself is that he’s a sinner who has been looked upon by God with mercy. Centering us on a God who loves us so much puts us in a whole different place than being afraid of a God who is punishing or who demands atonement for sins.”

A discerning church

Sister Barbara said Pope Francis has followed the tradition of the church but has made a special emphasis on being “a discerning church, a church who knows how to not only make difficult decisions in difficult pastoral situations but also difficult decisions for all of us as a body.”

“I think he’s both a brilliant theologian and a very practical pastor,” she said. “He knows how to speak in words and in symbols that are very easy to understand but not so easy to live out.”

Because Pope Francis lives out of “freedom” and “deep inner joy,” that freedom is “contagious and makes people want to know what his secret is.”

“I think his secret is no secret,” Sister Barbara said. “It’s a deep immersion in contemplative prayer and the Gospels. That is how he has been shaped and transformed, and that’s how he’s inviting us.”

Some Catholics struggle

His consistent theme of mercy and forgiveness may be a “struggle” for some Catholics to understand, but that is not unlike what Jesus himself encountered from Peter, to whom he gave authority to lead his church.

“One of the things you see in John 13 is that when Jesus gets to Peter to wash his feet, Peter says, ‘Absolutely not, absolutely, positively not, you will never wash my feet,’” Sister Barbara said. “In Greek, it comes across really strong.

“Peter’s objection is really a strong resistance to this manner of living and dying that asks a whole reorientation of the way we approach life. Peter is not just objecting to Jesus dying, but he’s objecting to the whole manner of life that Jesus is inviting us into – and that is what Pope Francis is inviting us into. So, it doesn’t surprise me that people struggle with what he is asking us to do.”

“If Pope Francis is experiencing resistance, that says to me he is absolutely on the right track,” Sister Barbara said. “I think he’s doing exactly what Jesus did, and it’s not easy. It makes any of us who are comfortable uncomfortable.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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